File photo

King County Council OKs millions for courts overwhelmed by pandemic backlog

Some lawyers testified that the backlog has created an “access to justice” problem.

King County courts are facing a problem, and the King County Council has agreed to shell out tens of millions of dollars to try and solve it.

Courts in the county are experiencing a tremendous backlog of cases of every kind, be it criminal or civil. The pandemic switch to conducting court proceedings in virtual format included a learning curve for everyone in the court system as well as a drop in efficiency.

The pandemic backlog is only compounded by the unforeseen impacts of the Washington state Supreme Court’s State v. Blake decision made in April. The ruling found that language in the state’s law prohibiting simple possession of illicit drugs was unconstitutional because it did not require proof that a defendant had intent to break the law.

According to the ordinance passed by the council which allotted $19.5 million to the judicial system on Tuesday, the State v. Blake ruling invalidates drug possession convictions dating back to 1971. The county estimates petitions from as many as 50,000 defendants will need to be carefully screened to determine legal eligibility for their release or compensation.

During the July 27 council meeting, many lawyers testified in favor of emergency court funding.

Erin Seeberger spoke on behalf of the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers Association, noting that both prosecutors and defense attorneys generally agree on the issue. She said it will be the civil court that suffers from lack of funding.

“It’s an access to justice issue,” Seeberger added.

She claimed that of the 21,000 civil cases filed in 2019, only a little more than 200 have been resolved in court.

Family law attorney, Michael Louden, emphasized the importance of finding a timely resolution to important family cases in which income, assets and the terms of contact with children are disputed. He said for parents and families engaged in these cases, it is the most important thing in their life at the time.

Louden said currently it could take years for these trials to be resolved in court, and waiting can be risky for children involved as parents may engage in unhealthy behavior, with parents withholding children from the other parent, or even putting kids in situations of abuse or neglect.

He described how lack of access to courts can create a situation he compared to getting monthly check-ups at the emergency room, as family living situations devolve into being dangerous or unhealthy.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Jamal Whitehead, former president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, which is the state’s largest and oldest minority bar.

Some lawyers testified against the large funding allocations to the courts, like attorney Henry Hwang, who urged the council to not “double-down” on systems that have historically disadvantaged people of color.

Criminal defense lawyer Laura Robinett testified that the court’s backlog was “exacerbated by COVID, but not created by it”. She said the backlog has existed for years due to the prosecutor’s that were eager to press an abundance of charges into the system even when evidence exists to prove defendants were innocent.

She urged the council members not to funnel federal American Rescue Plan dollars into the courts as proposed by Ordinance 2021-0238.

“Throwing money at the courts will not clear the backlog,” Robinett said.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@vashonbeachcomber.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.vashonbeachcomber.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in News

Breaking news: Vashon fire chief, who objected to mandate, gets vaccinated

In a letter to commissioners, paid staff and volunteers, Krimmert explained his decision.

CES COVID
In three weeks, three exposure events have happened in schools

The latest incidence of classroom exposures for students at Chautauqua Elementary School follows two previous exposure events at McMurray Middle School.

webteaseVCC
A storied place of care for local seniors will cease operations

In an interview, VCC executives cited deep issues of sustainability as reasons for their decision.

VSF
Schools foundation makes enrichment programs possible

The Vashon Schools Foundation begins its annual fundraising campaign.

Suspect held following scary afternoon on North End

Suspect in North End incident is being held in King County jail for $50,000 bail.

webteasekrimmert
Objection to mandate still clouds fire chief’s future on Vashon

Four other staff members in the district will file for exemptions to the vaccine mandate.

teaseice
Former tavern to transform into a sweet spot for all ages

The Creamery’s move is part of the overall transformation of the property by its new owners

visdtease
School board discusses COVID-19 updates, enrollment, curriculum

Board business included COVID updates, a new strategic plan and racial equity measures.

maleo
Recent study highlights local group’s conservation successes

Vashon-based group’s work has assisted in quadrupling maleo population over the last 14 years.

Most Read