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King County Courts Face Financial Crisis That May Stop Access to Justice for Many

— May 13, 2021

The Superior Court is faced with deciding which denial of access to justice is the lesser of two evils: having criminal defendants wait years in custody for trial as we continue business as usual, or gut the Court’s Civil and Family Law Departments.

King County, Washington’s courts are in financial trouble. As COVID-19 has done for so many business and individuals, the pandemic has also caused catastrophic damage to the court system. Trials are postponed, hearings are conducted remotely, and, in King County Courts, the Criminal Department was closed twice, for a cumulative total of nine months.

What’s so special about King County’s courts? Aren’t ALL courts hurting? More than likely, all courts are hurting. However, King County’s Courts have been at the forefront of “new normal litigation” for the better part of the pandemic. From a letter by the Hon. James E. Rogers, Presiding Judge:

“King County Superior Court is a national leader in creating great access to justice through virtual technology. In addition to thousands of hearings, we held over 600 trials from July 2020 to March 2021, including over 120 jury trials, while many courts across the country, even in the County, remained closed. Despite this great progress, the pandemic resulted in complete trial shutdown of the Criminal Department twice, for a combined period of over nine months. While the Court mostly shut down except for emergency functions in March 2020, thanks to our radical change in business practices starting in July, we were able to continue to hold dependency, family law and civil trials, including civil jury trials, during and beyond the November 2020 coronavirus wave.”

Of course, since criminal trials are held in person, the shutdown has created substantial backlogs with thousands of criminal trials, including serious offenses like homicide, sexual assaults, and assaults with weapons.

Now, comes a new challenge: moneys from the federal government (in excess of $100M) for court funding and support may be diverted by the County to other aspects of the County budget not to include the Court systems.

There are a few big reasons we should care about this possible diversion. The first, and seemingly most obvious, is the diversion itself. The funds were earmarked for Court support, not “other aspects.”

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Photo by Francesca Runza on Unsplash

Second, King County Courts have essentially shown the country how justice can be made accessible even during the throes of a pandemic that brought the country to its knees. A lack of necessary funding will not only prevent more useful innovative practices from being developed, but (here’s the third reason) it will cut access to justice, a constitutionally guaranteed right.

As Judge Rogers wrote to the King County Executive:

“With our current trial court capacity, these old, serious [criminal] cases will choke access to justice for years for defendants waiting in custody and to multiple other Court Departments. The Superior Court is faced with deciding which denial of access to justice is the lesser of two evils: having defendants wait years in custody for trial as we continue business as usual, or gut the Court’s Civil and Family Law Departments to try only criminal cased for three years, thereby limiting access for those who seek justice for discrimination, personal injury or child custody. We believe that the solution is a third way: temporarily increase trial capacity.”

However, with an IT staff diligently working as hard as possible, the temporary increase creates an impossible amount of work. The potentially diverted funding would solve that problem.

So, what can be done?

The potential diversion of earmarked funds has not yet taken place. However, without significant pressure from King County constituents (including all you lawyers with client cases pending), it very likely will happen.

That said, take a moment out of your day and write to your County Council Representative. Tell them why they need to keep the Court funded. Include a few short but powerful examples of clients who will have their constitutionally guaranteed right of access to justice essentially stripped away.

We’ve even made it a bit easier for you:

Click HERE to find your representative and their contact information.

It won’t take long to do. Remember: everyone has a right to be heard in a court of law. No one should have to wait an unreasonable length of time for their day in court. Particularly if they’re in custody or in situations where the intervention of the court is the only solution.

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