Thurston County Superior Court hasn’t had a new Superior Court judge position added since 2000, and in those two decades, criminal filings have increased by 18 percent.
Superior Court Administrator Pam Hartman-Beyer said Thurston County has the most underfunded county court system in the state. She spoke at a meeting with the Thurston County Board of Commissioners on Friday.
“The quality of justice a litigant receives in a case should not vary depending on what court in the state hears the case. And currently, because of how underfunded we are, there is a disparity,” Hartman-Beyer said.
To address that disparity, the Superior Court is seeking a ninth judge position, which would require that new state legislation be passed. Under Washington state law, every Superior Court jurisdiction in the state is allotted a certain number of judges. It has been 24 years since additional judge positions were approved for Thurston County. Two judgeships were added in 1996, and while one judge started that year, the other position wasn’t filled until 2000.
The county’s Superior Court hears cases in multiple areas of law, and almost all of them have seen a significant increases since 2000. Probation and guardianship filings have risen 54 percent. Civil filings fluctuate year-to-year, but the highest it’s reached in the past two decades was a 79.6 percent increase. Involuntary treatment and mental illness filings have risen 1042 percent.
On a positive note, juvenile offender filings have dropped 59.8 percent.
“Prior to COVID, we were doing a really good job with our criminal case management flow … and ensuring we were hearing cases timely,” said Hartman-Beyer.
But since the pandemic hit and the state supreme court halted jury trials, a large backlog of criminal and civil cases have built up. Here in Thurston County, an off-site courtroom is currently under construction. The county hopes that the additional courtroom will help alleviate the trial backlog for both Superior and District courts.
This past June, the commissioners signed a letter in support of the superior court adding a ninth judge. The commissioners must also agree to pay half the judge’s salary. The other half, including benefits, would be paid by the legislature.
The county’s 2021 budget must be finalized and approved by the end of the year. Hartman-Beyer asked the commissioners to set aside money for a new judge position, which would begin in Nov. 2021.
The state’s Board of Judicial Administration (BJA), a state organization that develops policy to support Washington’s court systems, agreed to present the legislation on behalf of Thurston County. However, the BJA will only do so if the county funds the judge’s salary in the 2021 budget. If the legislation doesn’t pass, the money would go back into the budget.