Guest Editorial: Are our courthouse doors closing?

Published on Wed, May 8, 2013 by Judge Chuck Snyder, Whatcom County Superior Court

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Several years ago, judges statewide began urging the legislature for more stable funding for the trial courts so we could provide equal and accessible justice across our state. At that time, our great state of Washington was dead last – 50th out of 50 states – for the money the state spent on our trial courts. Even worse, the money the state spent on the entire judicial branch of government was only 3/10ths of 1 percent of the state operating budget.

Beginning in 2005, the legislature deserves much credit for responsibly starting down the path to provide adequate and stable funding for the trial courts. 

The state’s contribution to the trial courts rose from 3/10ths to 7/10ths of the state operating budget. Even with that increase Washington was still 50th out of 50 states in its funding for trial courts – the courts that ordinary citizens rely on daily to handle felony criminal cases, dissolutions of marriage and disputes involving real property, businesses and personal injury. Beginning in 2010, however, this critical funding was again cut.

The 2013 cuts proposed by the legislature to these programs are even more devastating. For example, the Senate’s budget proposes a cut of $7.9 million. This proposed budget would result in a cumulative cut of 31.2 percent to the judicial branch over the next few years. That is a greater cut than any agency of the executive branch has taken.

These cuts will mean the counties will again have to pay the costs of court interpreters for non-English speaking people, a group that is growing. It also means that programs such as court appointed special advocates (CASA) will be limited or ended.

CASA volunteers provide legally required guardians ad litem to represent children who are abused or neglected and placed in foster care. In Whatcom County the CASA program saves the county government about $100,000 per year. If this funding goes away, the county will again have to pay for contracted guardians ad litem.

Other funding in danger provides money for a contribution to the salaries of district and qualifying municipal court judges whose salaries would otherwise be paid fully by county government and would affect collection of fines and other assessments by the clerks as well as other funding that serves those using the trial courts. And finally, after nearly two years of work on a businesslike approach to find a replacement for the failing and obsolete 1970s-era computerized case management program for Superior Courts, on the eve of purchasing such a system, the Senate budget takes all the money saved over the years for that purpose and uses it for other purposes.

It is reprehensible that a co-equal branch of government, the judiciary, is provided so little money to run our statewide court system and is now being threatened with even more cuts. These cuts just do not make sense.

As of the time of this writing the House has passed a more responsible budget that would include funding for most of the court operations that were cut in the Senate budget. It is important that members of both the House and Senate understand the importance of these items and include them in any final budget passed.  

As citizens who depend on our courts, please contact your legislators and tell them how important this is. Don’t close the doors to the courthouse for those that need justice.