Washington Courts: News and Information
State of the Judiciary AddressJanuary 23, 2013
State of the Judiciary Address
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen
January 23, 2013
Joint Session, Senate Chambers
Thank you Mr. President, Speaker Chopp, Governor Inslee, elected officials, members of the House and Senate, fellow justices and judges, Rabbi Goldstein, ladies, and gentlemen.
Let me add my welcome to all of the new legislators and to those of you who have changed houses. I had the chance to meet many of you over the past few weeks at the dinners sponsored by our Board for Judicial Administration—the BJA—at our Temple of Justice birthday party, at the inaugural ball, or swearing you in. For those I have not met, I look forward to meeting you as we go through this legislative session. Whatever the occasion, I believe that time spent getting to know one another is time well spent.
I am honored to be here today, along with my colleagues on the Washington Supreme Court, to deliver this report on the state of Washington’s judiciary.
As many of you know, our court system operates through a system of trial courts and appellate courts. Many of the leaders of our court associations are with us today, in the gallery. I would like to take a moment to introduce them:
· Presiding Chief Judge Christine Quinn-Brintnall from the Court of Appeals, Division Two in Tacoma;
· Benton/Franklin County Superior Court Judge Craig Matheson, president of the Superior Court Judges’ Association of Washington; and
· Judge Sara Derr from Spokane County District Court, president of the District and Municipal Court Judges’ Association.
These judges are joined by members of the Board for Judicial Administration, the policy-setting board for the courts. I am very proud of these judges and the people they represent who work in our court system.
We also have the administrative heads of our three agencies with us today: The Washington State Court administrator who heads the Administrative Office of the Courts, Callie Dietz; the executive director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid, Jim Bamberger; and the director for the Office of Public Defense, Joanne Moore.
It is no secret that we are experiencing very challenging times in our state and in our nation. I have not spoken to anyone who is predicting that you will have an easy session this year. I think you will be spending long days and many nights in Olympia.
As the spokesperson for the courts, I also feel a great weight on my shoulders. Even in the best of times, our divided government requires careful leadership in each branch. As you begin this legislative session, I know that many of you are thinking about the issue of divided government. The gray areas at the edges of our respective powers can give rise to debate and even disagreement about the areas of authority in which each of our branches operate. Such debate and disagreement is healthy—indeed I think this is a part of the checks and balances that our founders intended.
But even in a divided government, the branches are meant to work together. As many of you know, this is the 100th anniversary of the Temple of Justice. The temple, which is home to the Supreme Court, was the first building on the capitol campus. If you look at the campus from Budd Inlet, you will see that the temple appears to blend into the capitol building—and together the temple and the capitol are covered by one capitol dome. In designing the capitol group in this way, the architects were attempting to reflect the reality that the three branches together make a single government.
As with the legislature and the governor, the judiciary has its role to play. I want to assure all of you that the courts are committed to working with you on matters of common interest and concern within the limits of our branch’s authority.
Unlike the legislature and the governor, our courts generally operate under the radar screen. More than two million individual civil and criminal cases are filed every year in our trial courts. Thousands are decided in our appellate courts each year. We have one constitutional duty. That is to fairly, effectively, and timely adjudicate the civil and criminal disputes that come before us.
At a judge’s swearing-in a few weeks ago, I heard a story from John Ladenburg, formerly the Pierce County executive. John was in China on a trade mission along with Microsoft, Amazon, and other U.S. companies. According to John, one of the delegates asked a Chinese government minister what he thought was needed to attract new businesses to China. His answer—lawyers. You may laugh—just as the Washington team did. But when they laughed the minister became angry. He said, “Without lawyers there are no courts; without courts, there is no legal system. Without a legal system there is no protection; there are no commercial laws—you do not even understand the advantage you have in your country—you have the rule of law. Your courts protect people and their property. That makes all the difference.”
Lest you think I am claiming all the credit for the courts—I believe that it is the legislature, the executive, and the courts—working together—that provide the kind of environment that is necessary for individuals and businesses to grow and prosper. Even with its flaws, our system is the envy of the world.
We know that the law is complex. Cases are complex. And disagreements are predictable. Cases like McCleary, that address school funding, and the pending case of League of Education Voters, which involves a challenge to restrictions on the power of the legislature to tax, will always provoke controversy. That comes with the constitutional responsibility placed on courts. But, it’s how we work together to meet the very complex and difficult challenges that will determine the future for the public that we all serve.
Last week, we heard comments from outgoing Governor Gregoire and newly elected Governor Inslee. Though their plans for meeting the future differed—the common theme was the same—we are all facing significant challenges– maybe now more than ever as year upon year of economic difficulties continue.
I recently learned that the Chinese symbol for crises is a combination of two concepts—opportunity and danger. The opportunity is to redefine how we deliver services to the public. The danger is in failing to adapt.
The extensive budget cuts of the past four years have required the courts to become creative and to be innovators—and we’re committed to continue looking for new, efficient processes to help us fulfill our responsibility to deliver justice.
Though being chief justice carries challenges, the position also gives me a bird’s eye view of the tremendous job that our courts are doing to innovate in these tough budget times. I want to mention just a few of these creative solutions:
· At the Administrative Office of the Courts, we have created on-line education that allows judges and court personnel to stay current with changes in law and practices while reducing or eliminating travel costs or time away from court.
· We are also modernizing our aging computer systems by looking at commercial, off-the-shelf products to meet the growing demands of technology in courts throughout our state.
· Local courts are also working in innovative ways to help curb costs and improve service. Pierce County juvenile courts, for example, have reduced “failure to appear” rates and detention rates implementing a two-tiered warrant system, calling and conducting home visits to remind juveniles to be in court, and using a continuum of alternatives to detention. This strategy is one of six that Pierce County has implemented to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. The result has been a 47% decrease in detention from 2007 to 2011.
· In Seattle Municipal Court, the probation department has formed a partnership with social work programs at three schools: Seattle University, University of Washington, and University of Southern California. Volunteers and interns from these schools have a wide range of experience and are placed in positions from answering phones to assisting with assessments and collecting program data. Last year, volunteers gave nearly 16,000 hours of service.
· In Kitsap County District Court, the judges began transitioning to an electronic filing system, which has resulted in an 80% reduction in supplies, copy machines, forms, filing cabinets, and so on, as well as a 23% reduction in staffing.
· In King County, eight municipal courts, led by Tukwila Municipal Court, have pioneered a system for scheduling and sharing precious interpreter services. This has reduced cost and increased availability.
· And right here in Thurston County, the judges are developing a risk assessment tool for domestic violence defendants. Through the Washington Supreme Court Gender and Justice Commission, we hope to make this tool available to judges across the state.
In this vein, we are also exploring ways to foster regional courts. District and municipal courts are where most citizens interact with the judicial system, and we need to foster an approach that best serves the public. More than 170 municipalities currently contract with a district or municipal court. It is imperative that we examine the most efficient and cost effective method of providing judicial services to everyone coming to court in Washington State.
More and more, community leaders are interested in exploring cooperative arrangements for the delivery of court services. Thanks to a grant from the State Justice Institute, we are currently exploring a concept that is broadly described as regional courts. Combined courts can contribute to better court performance, customer service, and fiscal efficiency. We want to work with you on this important court reform.
Providing Effective Assistance of Counsel
Along with our Temple of Justice centennial, this year is the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.
As Justice Hugo Black wrote in that ground breaking decision, “Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”
We can be proud that long before the United States Supreme Court expressed that belief, our legislature acted to guarantee the right to counsel in Washington State.
Recently, however, we learned that in areas of our state, the promise of access to effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by our constitution and our legislature has not been met.
Public trust and confidence in our criminal justice system depends on people knowing and believing they have been treated fairly and that their rights have been protected. A conviction may have a lifetime of consequences—including the ability to get a job, an apartment, a student loan. A conviction may separate a family or mean losing custody of a child.
As judges, it is our duty to ensure not just the presence of counsel, but effective counsel. And to be effective takes time.
As far back as 2004, the Report of the WSBA Blue Ribbon Panel on Criminal Defense concluded that the standards for public defense services enacted in RCW 10.101.030 were being ignored in many jurisdictions and that the lack of enforceable standards, especially case load standards, “jeopardizes the ability of even the most dedicated defenders to provide adequate representation.”
After more than a year of debate, a four-month formal public comment period, and intense internal discussion, the Washington Supreme
Court recently adopted indigent defense certification, which requires development of case load standards.
But adopting court rules is just the beginning. Now, attorneys, trial judges, and administrators must work together to find the best way to implement certification in their courts.
We know that some legislators have concerns about how this will impact local communities—but, through the Office of Public Defense, we want to work with the cities and counties to help design workable systems.
Last December, the court ordered the Office of Public Defense to prepare a new report on how the standards and attorney certification rules are being implemented across the state. The report is due this March and will focus on how jurisdictions are working with attorney case loads and methods for addressing them successfully. The case load limits do not become effective under the rules until October 2013.
I also want to mention the other new initiative that the Office of Public Defense is undertaking. Because of its great success with the Parents Representation Program, you in this legislature have asked the office to take on the enormous task of reforming the defense of sexually violent predators. I have no doubt that the Office of Public Defense will exercise the same scrupulous care in evaluating the most efficient and cost effective ways of delivering services to this population that it has exercised in all of its innovative programs. We look forward to working with you on this important initiative.
Another challenge facing our branch is to effectively address racial disparities in our court system.
The Washington State Center for Court Research, which operates within the judicial branch, has been hard at work collecting and sharing data on a statewide level and county-by-county. The specific details at the county and court level will help us determine the causes for disproportionality and guide us in finding solutions.
Based on data gathered so far, the task force has submitted a number of recommendations for actions by the Supreme Court, for judicial branch agencies, for the different court levels, and for justice partners, such as schools and law enforcement agencies. We need to examine the causes of disproportionality and work toward solutions.
We know that “Justice is the Guardian of Liberty.” These words are etched on the façade of the United States Supreme Court. It will take all of us working together to ensure that justice is equally applied. We will be asking for your help as we meet this challenge.
Interpreter Needs in Washington Courts
Likewise, we must recognize that not all people who need the court system are able to speak English. Seventy-eight different languages were interpreted in Washington’s trial courts in 2012, and King County’s running tally shows that they have provided interpreters for 130 different languages. However, our state has certified and registered interpreters in only 35 languages, meaning that we are not able to ensure quality translations for many languages spoken in our courts.
Legal proceedings, with their technical language and complex processes, are confusing enough when you understand English. But, imagine walking into a high stakes situation where you didn’t understand a word of what was going on.
As Washington’s diversity continues to grow, the need for interpreters is exploding. With limited resources, we must find a way to provide interpreter services in the most efficient and effective ways possible. That is why the Supreme Court included in its budget submission to the legislature a request for funding for a pilot program for video remote interpreting. Reducing both the cost and time of travel can better focus scarce resources where they belong. We need your help to find a solution.
We also recognize that the Great Recession has generated a host of profound legal problems for our low income Washingtonians. In 2011 alone, more than a quarter of a million calls were placed to our statewide legal aid hotline. Demand for help is particularly high in recession sensitive areas of law such as housing, foreclosure, help with governmental support programs, domestic violence, and family safety.
In Washington, legal aid is delivered through an innovative public private partnership. State funding supports our nationally recognized statewide legal aid provider—the Northwest Justice Project—as well as 17 local volunteer legal aid programs. I’m very proud of the thousands of volunteer attorneys across the state who together delivered nearly 60,000 hours of free legal aid, worth more than $10 million to over 20,000 individuals and families.
But deep federal budget cuts have crippled legal aid. There are only 87 state-funded legal aid attorneys left to meet the needs of more than 1.8 million low income people who are eligible for state-funded civil legal aid. Today, there is just one legal aid attorney serving all of Clallam and Jefferson Counties; one serves all of Southeast Washington, from Walla Walla to Clarkston; and one serves all low income clients in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties. In our urban centers, there are more than 22,000 eligible clients for each state-funded legal aid attorney.
Legal aid helps resolve cases quickly, often keeping many cases out of court in the first place and facilitating the quick resolution of those that are in our courts. Legal aid is a smart and cost effective investment.
The legal aid system, as administered by our Office of Civil Legal Aid, has received strong bipartisan support in recent years. For this, we in the judicial branch are grateful. But we need your continuing support to meet the civil justice needs of our state’s poorest residents.
Finally, I would like to address the critical challenges that we face in keeping our courthouses safe for the thousands of attorneys, jurors, court staff, litigants, and members of the public.
As Judge David Edwards of Grays Harbor County can attest, this is a challenge in every local jurisdiction. He is a shining example of courage in what can only be described as a terrifying ordeal that occurred in his courthouse.
Given Judge Edwards’ experience, the recent attack on Judge Brett Buckley at his home in Olympia, and multiple bomb threats in courthouses throughout Washington last month, we know that courthouse security is a continuing challenge that needs to be resolved quickly. We are truly blessed that in each situation, there was not a tragic ending.
But hoping that this remains the case is not a policy. At a fundamental level, our democracy is dependent on a judicial branch that can decide disputes safely.
No one should be afraid to walk into a courthouse. In 2012, the security staff at Spokane County District Court confiscated over 1,000 handguns, 9,000 knives, 80 tasers, 1,700 razor blades, 1,100 cans of mace, and hundreds of other items that could be used as weapons. In courts without security, these items enter the courthouse everyday. The reality is that at any given time, people who are charged with violent crimes or who are engaged in intensely emotional situations are gathered together in one location. Simply hoping that nothing bad happens is no longer good enough.
As we look back on an extraordinarily challenging year, Washington can be proud of its judiciary and its ability to adapt, modernize, and innovate. But this is just the beginning. We will continue to devise innovative and cost efficient ways to ensure that all persons—including the most vulnerable in our society—are provided with fair and timely justice and that they have their day in court in a modern and technologically advanced court system.
With the leadership of the Board for Judicial Administration, and the efforts of our exceptional judges and court staff, I am confident we will continue to turn the challenges we face into opportunities to transform the court system today and in the future.
We will continue to balance the scales so that we can adapt to fiscal realities and never stray from our constitutional mission. The pursuit of justice is what this court system is all about—from its inception two centuries ago to this very day and in all the years to come.
I thank you for the warm welcome that you have given me and my fellow justices, and I wish you all well in the coming year.
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