The need for a fourth Whatcom County Superior Court judge has been under discussion for a decade. This month, the state Legislature has taken action.
State lawmakers who represent the county, led by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, are behind a bill introduced last week to approve the new judge.
Senate Bill 5052 and House Bill 1159 have bipartisan support, but the bill must pass muster in budget committees, as it adds $104,000 in annual expense to the state.
While the state covers half the salary and all the benefits of a superior court judge, the county is responsible for the other half of the salary and all associated expenses, including court staff. County Executive Jack Louws said county expenses should amount to less than $200,000 a year.
Ericksen said he sponsored the Senate bill after being approached by county officials.
"It's not a done deal," Ericksen said, acknowledging the push within his Senate majority to reduce government spending. "I think we have a very good case to make in terms of the need for a judge."
The county hasn't added a Superior Court judge since 1972. Skagit County, with 58 percent of Whatcom's population, already has four judges.
Backlogs in criminal and especially civil cases have been a problem at the court for more than a decade. In addition to the three judges, three full-time and two part-time commissioners handle cases, but they can't hear jury trials.
"It is a big deal for Whatcom. It will give us the ability to set more jury trial dates, which should clean out the backlog on civil cases," Louws said.
The need for an additional judge wasn't a priority in recent years because the county didn't have the funds to cover its share of the cost. The council has since committed money to design a courthouse renovation, to add a fourth courtroom. Managerial positions in the court office have been consolidated to save money, Louws said.
"It needs to be done, and we're going to have to make the appropriate (budget) adjustment by the next biennium to make it happen," he said.
The request got a boost in November, when it was approved by the state Board for Judicial Administration. The board speaks on behalf of all levels of the judicial branch in the state.
Whatcom Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder, who is on the board, was scheduled to speak in support of the additional judge on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at a public hearing of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
If the bill passes, the county plans to renovate the courthouse to add a fourth courtroom by the end of 2014, Louws said. Voters would elect a new judge that year, to take the bench in 2015.