Seattle Municipal Court presiding judge Edsonya Charles sent a sternly worded letter to the city council on Wednesday, urging the council not to eliminate one municipal court judge position, as the council's finance and budget committee proposed doing earlier this week. Charles accused the council of failing to accurately calculate judicial workload by relying on workload estimates by the city that she said were incomplete and flawed.
"The Court is disheartened that we were not permitted to participate in the discussion and provide data, though Council was able to provide hearsay anecdotes," Charles explained, such as a statement by a council staffer that courtrooms were often dark during the day.
The city council attempted to have the city auditor do an audit of judicial workload last year; however, Charles argued at the time that it was inappropriate for the legislative branch to review the judicial branch. Instead, Charles asked for a workload analysis from the state Administrative Office of the Court (AOC), which did an analysis and found that the court needed 13.5 full-time employees, including judges, to meet its caseload. At the same time, the city auditor did a cursory review of the court's workload based on limited information and found that there was room for cuts.
Municipal Court administrator Yolande Williams, who reports to Charles, says the council chose "to ignore [the state] report in favor of the city auditor's workload analysis" despite the fact that the auditor "admitted that they lacked the expertise, the knowledge, and the resources to conduct that analysis."
City budget staffers say the AOC's report overstated judges' workloads. They say the state report did not include pertinent information and counted cases that were dismissed en masse (like the vast majority of the city's charges for driving with a suspended license) or conducted entirely by mail toward judges' total workload. In a memo to council members, Catherine Cornwall from the city budget office also noted that the state's analysis counted charges, not cases, toward judges' workload (so that a single case with multiple charges would count twice), and that they didn't consider the impact of the city's "specialty" courts, such as drug and mental health court, on regular judges' workloads.
In her letter to the council, Charles defended including those cases, arguing that even in cases that are dismissed "A judge must consider each ... case and make a decision whether or not to grant the dismissal. Court staff must then process the dismissal," she wrote.
The letter—which notes that the court "was not permitted to participate in the discussion" at the committee meeting, echoes Charles' public testimony, when she said that if the council cuts a judge, the court "will no longer be able to maintain its high level of service ... Instead the court will join the race to the bottom. The court is in the best position to determine how to make budget reductions while satisfying the demands of justice."
For the council to call their decision to cut a judge position a "budget decision" is "intellectually dishonest," Charles continued. "If it’s a budget issue, then give the court its target and we will meet it."
The council has asked the court to come up with cuts between $2.7 million and $4 million total as part of the midyear budget reduction process. Eliminating the judge and his staff would save less than $500,000 of the total amount the court will have to cut. The council is scheduled to vote on the elimination of the judge on Monday; yesterday, Mayor Mike McGinn, City Attorney Pete Holmes, and three council members signed a letter supporting the reduction, and at least six council members reportedly support it.
The council is discussing the municipal court judge position separately from the rest of this year's midyear budget-reduction deliberations because candidates for judge must file by June 7; the legislation, if adopted Monday, would take effect on that date.
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