King County Superior Court cannot be closed
King County Superior Court is an essential government services that cannot close down for 10 working days as a way to balance the county budget. For one thing, that violates the state constitution.
Special to The Times
KING County Executive Ron Sims has proposed closing all county offices, including King County Superior Court, for 10 working days in 2009 in order to balance the county's budget. He has exempted the sheriff and the jail as "essential services," but he has not exempted the courts and the Superior Court cannot be closed without violating the state constitution.
A core principle of our system of government is three branches, each with authority independent of the other. The legislative branch sets policy, the executive branch implements it and the independent judiciary protects the rule of law and the rights of the individual against the other powers of the state.
In Washington, our state constitution gives the Superior Court jurisdiction over felony criminal cases, divorce and family-law disputes, trust and estate cases, business disputes, cases involving accidents and alleged professional malpractice, juvenile cases and mental-illness commitments. To adopt the executive's furlough proposal would require that Superior Court be closed while suspending civil and criminal trial and all other court proceedings. But these judicial proceedings involve decisions that directly affect the liberties of our citizens, and delays can often mean an immediate risk of irreversible harm. Justice delayed is justice denied.
The drafters of our state constitution foresaw the risk that one branch of government might force closure on another branch. To prevent this, our constitution provides that the superior court "shall always be open, except on nonjudicial days," which are weekends and holidays. The chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court has further determined that the state constitution does not allow for creating new "nonjudicial days" to create budget savings. Apart from weekends and holidays, the courts may be closed only in physical emergencies like snowstorms, floods or earthquakes. And for Superior Court to be "open" under the constitution means that judges are sitting on the bench adjudicating cases and that support and security staff are at work.
Each coequal branch of government must recognize its responsibilities to the others. To maintain the judicial independence that underlies our system, the executive and legislative branches must fund the judicial branch, which has no taxing authority of its own. While the Superior Court created under Washington's constitution is a state court, the responsibility to fund Superior Court is assigned to each county. Each county is also required to fund its prosecutor's office and its public defenders. If counties fail to adequately fund either, then the court's criminal docket will clog up, which threatens the administration of the criminal-justice system.
King County Superior Court is the largest general jurisdiction court in our state. It handled more than 62,000 case filings in 2007. There is only so much that can be cut before the administration of justice is undermined. In response to the budget crisis, King County Superior Courts identified budget savings of more than $4.5 million, almost 11 percent of its entire budget, which was already thinned substantially in prior budgets.
Last month, the Court was asked to cut an additional $1 million from its budget and $450,000 from the court clerk's budget. If forced to meet these additional cuts, King County Superior Courts would have to slash services essential to the fair and efficient administration of justice.
One such essential service threatened by budget cuts is Family Court Services, which judges rely upon to make critical decisions in family-law disputes. Family Court Services act as the "eyes and ears" of the court, allowing trained professionals to go into the family home to investigate allegations of domestic violence, make recommendations regarding custody and visitation limitations in divorce cases, and provide the court with a neutral report on these critical issues.
To meet the additional $450,000 cut in the clerk's budget would require eliminating Drug Court, a nationally recognized program that provides treatment of addicts instead of jail, ultimately saving the taxpayers money by keeping drug-law violators out of jail and by helping restore citizens to productive lives. Drug Court not only saves on jail costs; it also receives $3.7 million biannually for treatment from the state, money that would be lost if Drug Court is forced to close.
King County faces some very hard choices. But no matter what they are, we cannot afford to suspend our citizens' access to justice by closing our courts.Bruce Hilyer is presiding judge of King County Superior Court.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
(The Associated Press) Fuel rules get support A Consumer Federation of America survey conducted in April found that a large majority of Americans R...
Post a comment