Currently King County District Court judges sit as pro tem commissioners at the Regional Justice Center for two days per week. They hear the Ex Parte Calendar and Anti-Harassments/ Ex Parte Special Sets Calendar. A King County District Court commissioner sits as a Special Master one morning per week on the Status Conference Calendar.
In Jefferson County, the district court judge also sits as a superior court commissioner, and the superior court commissioner sits as a district court pro tem judge, as needed
In 1996, the judges of the Yakima superior and district courts decided to consolidate the positions of superior court administrator and district court administrator. This decision was made because the courts needed unity of leadership and were significantly underfunded. The consolidation refers to cooperative sharing efforts to provide services to the bench, bar and litigants in the most efficient and effective way. The current organizational structure provides a court administrator who is responsible to both the presiding judges of the superior and district courts. Futhermore, administrative staff perform functions for both levels of trial court such as, budget, personnel, accounting, purchasing, etc. By consolidating administrative services, the courts provide a single point of contact for services, efficiency improves, and duplicative duties between courts have been reduced or eliminated. Yakima County has created a five member senior management team consisting of the court administrator, assistant administrator, operations manager, administrative manager, and office supervisor for district court.
Under Whatcom County charter, the office of county clerk is an appointed position. When the incumbent Clerk retired, the Presiding Judge suggested that the jurisdiction appoint, on an interim basis, the Court Administrator as Acting Clerk, while the bench and Executive decided what to do about the vacancy. In 1987, the superior court administrator was appointed by the county executive, with the consent of the superior court, to serve simultaneously as the acting county clerk.
In 1988, a memorandum of understanding was entered into between the county executive and the superior court confirming the superior court administrator as the county clerk. Pursuant to the memorandum of understanding, personnel, budgeting, purchasing, property control, and records management for the clerk’s office remained under the administration of the county executive. Independent budgets are maintained for each function, i.e., superior court and county clerk. In late 1988, the Office of the Administrator for the Courts conducted an evaluation of the combined office of superior court administrator and county clerk. Results of the evaluation reveal the change had a positive impact on staff morale and functioning. Interviews with representatives of the county executive, superior court bench, county department heads, and bar association indicate that better communication has been the hallmark of the combined position. These outside observers noted the improvement in morale in the clerk’s office and felt productivity was also enhanced.
The Whatcom County Superior Court is perceived to be a local model of efficiency and effectiveness. Vestiges of the separation of responsibilities have all but disappeared in the 13 years the combination has been in place. Leadership models are various and this one can perhaps be best described as a “Board of Directors/Chief Executive Officer” model. The direction for the operation of the administrator/clerk’s office comes from the bench. The few times that the incumbent has had to assert the separate nature of his Clerk role have been the area of personnel assignments of Clerk staff and in the preservation of court files. The former area, personnel assignment, is not an area that necessarily needs preservation, but was a local contretemps dealing with the historical role of the Clerk. The latter area, dealing with the court records, is one that should, in Whatcom’s experience, remain a formal charge to any Clerk and not be subject to the control of the Court. None of the instances of these near-controversies has been a serious issue. There have been instances when the Executive has directed the Clerk and the Court to cut services due to fiscal restraints. While the Court was better able to resist those mandates based on an assertion of constitutional and statutory duties, the Clerk was less able to do so. A few of those instances provoked statements from the Court that the Court would either cease providing affected judicial services until the Clerk was enabled to perform his duties vis-à-vis those services or that the Court would compel the Executive to provide the Clerk with the means to provide those services. All such instances resulted in amicable resolutions short of acrimony.
According to the judges, “In this county we have been very fortunate to have a highly competent clerk/administrator, a county executive who has an excellent understanding of the need for and existence of a proper separation of powers. We have a collegial bench that has almost always acted with unanimity after full evaluation and discussion of important issues that touch upon the clerk/administrator functions. This combination makes for a very effective and efficient operation.”
Jefferson County also uses a model in which the elected county clerk serves as the superior court administrator and is appointed as a superior court commissioner. The model is seen as efficient and effective by both the bench and the executive branch. The Clerk/Administrator coordinates jury management and indigent defense rotation and tracking for both the superior and district court. Additionally, the two trial courts coordinate the use of facilities, recording equipment, administrative personnel, jury bailiffs and court security.
In 1993, King County Superior Court formed a task force to plan the implementation of a unified family court in King County. The task force was created because the judges and the bar felt that families involved in the justice system might be better served through a comprehensive approach in which family and juvenile law proceedings were integrated into one system. In 1997, the King County UFC project instituted a case management system to enhance the effectiveness of the court in handling high conflict cases involving children and their families. The system includes special screening procedures to identify and target case management services to families whose cases involve the health and welfare of children and whose members frequently have multiple pending causes of action in separate courts. These cases are then assigned to a single judge and court commissioner. A full time legal case manger provides informational services to all involved parties and is responsible for coordinating and tracking these cases. As part of the legislatively funded UFC project, the King County UFC will add another case manager.
In April 1996, the Thurston County Superior Court began plans for a unified family court. The decision to move toward a UFC grew out of several circumstances: 1) a new juvenile center was being designed and would include adequate space to house the UFC; 2) the current superior court facility was overcrowded; and 3) great benefits to litigants and the community could be gained from locating juvenile and family law courts in a single facility. The key components of the UFC in Thurston County are as follows. All family and juvenile proceedings are held in on facility separate from the main courthouse. One judge or judicial team is assigned to all hearings for one family and all contemporaneous cases involving family members. Use of alternative dispute resolution (mediation and settlement conferences) is expanded. Training is provided on a monthly basis for everyone involved in the family and juvenile court system. As part of the legislatively funded UFC project, the Thurston County UFC will add a case manager. The case manager will identify, schedule and manage cases for families with either multiple hearings or multiple cases. The case manager will also track compliance with court-ordered services where children are affected and play a central role in coordinating all courthouse services for unrepresented parties in the family court services unit.
As part of the legislatively funded UFC project, Snohomish County will UFC will add a case manager to coordinate information and services related to families who come into contact with the superior court as a result of dissolution of marriage, domestic violence, dependency, CHINS/At –risk youth, truancy, or offender proceedings. These matters will be coordinated so as to be heard by the same judge. In the first year of the project, 100 families will be identified who are involved in two or more different judicial tracks. OAC will conduct an evaluation of the three pilot UFC projects. The evaluation report will be submitted to the Supreme Court, the Legislature, and the Governor on December 1, 2004.
In 1997, a task force in Clark County determined that domestic violence cases were not being handled in an effective fashion. This was a relatively new area for courts that presented multifaceted problems. The problem was compounded by a significant increase in filings. The task force found that the court did not readily adapt to the changed situation and that victims were being shuffled from one court to another and given conflicting information.
The court also recognized that traditional approaches to assault cases were not effective where the parties were family members or involved in other intimate relationships. Because the relationships frequently were ongoing, there existed a need to fast track cases to minimize danger to the victim. There was also a perceived need for the court to monitor the situation more closely than was the case in other types of assault cases.
Clark County consolidated services in district court, creating a court with jurisdiction over criminal domestic violence allegations and civil protection orders. To implement this, district court staff were deputized by the county clerk to perform clerk duties. Two district court judges act as superior court commissioners to preside over the consolidated calendar. Staff from both the superior and district court “triage” potential cases that are candidates for calendar. By prioritizing domestic violence cases, the court has been able to resolve domestic violence cases in a more timely fashion and with greater emphasis on treating the problem. This one-stop shopping approach has centralized the process for victims, led to greater expertise on the part of court staff, helped to eliminate conflicting orders, and allowed for greater communication between the court and treatment providers. By involving the community, in the form of treatment provider and victim’s advocates, the court was able to place a long-term emphasis on healing.
With the same judge handling the criminal matter as is responding to requests for protection orders, the judge is in a better position to assess the potential danger and fashion an order that realistically addresses the problem. Because the judge has developed expertise in dealing with domestic violence matters, the judge is better able to fashion a sanction that takes into consideration the party’s relationship and interdependence.
Other counties have also unified and coordinated procedures for handling protection order cases, including Whatcom, Pierce, and Snohomish.
In the aftermath of an incident in King County wherein a person with mental problems killed a retired Seattle Fire Captain, King County put together a task force to look at the ways in which the mentally ill were treated by King County courts. In researching the issue, it became clear that the mentally ill were disproportionately represented in jail populations and that much of the behavior for which mentally ill persons were arrested could be better dealt with through the mental health system.
Seattle developed a court model that utilizes a team approach. The team, comprised of judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, treatment community liaison and probation officer, handle all of the misdemeanor cases involving mentally ill defendants. The goal of the team is to be familiar with individuals’ treatment needs and specifics of their cases. The court is given the time to ensure that the intricacies of the cases are fully addressed. This approach ensures expertise in complex legal and mental health issues.
Recognizing that mental health is a complex issue which may require long term supervision and support has led the court to form linkages with the treatment community that help to ensure defendants, and treatment providers, are in compliance with treatment objectives. It has also meant that courts are allotted the time necessary to hold frequent review hearings and provide probation personnel with expertise in mental health issues and who have reduced caseloads.
With the exception of cases in which competency is an issue, participation in the mental health court is voluntary. The program is an alternative for those committed to seeking treatment of conditions that lead to their criminal behavior.
In many counties the superior court oversees all jury operations for both court levels. The superior court works with the county information services department or a service provider like Jury Plus or Puget Postings to create a master source list (from the merged list provided by the Department of Information Services). Juror names are drawn randomly from the master source list and those citizens are summoned (and qualified) for jury duty by the superior court. Citizens report to a central location for juror orientation, and then the appropriate number of jurors are sent to voir dire in superior, district and municipal courtrooms depending upon the number of jury trials scheduled. Jurors not chosen to sit on a panel may return to the central location and could be sent out to voir dire again. Fee and mileage payment is also processed centrally by the superior court jury administrator.
In Kitsap County all district and municipal court judges are placed on a list to share the work associated with weekend probably causes determinations. Each judge serves for one month of weekends. In Whatcom County, the superior court coordinates the schedules of all superior, district, and municipal court judges to rotate responsibility for weekend probably cause hearings. The three trial courts in Whatcom County also share the use of in-jail interactive video equipment for first appearances.
Washington courts have combined or reconfigured many other court services in an attempt to provide more effective and efficient services. Some counties have combined interpreter recruitment services; others have a centralized resource to screen cases for the assignment of indigent defense services. Two limited jurisdiction courts in King County have coordinated their jury calendars to achieve the maximum use of both recruited jurors and courtroom space.
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