Whatcom courts face 'a perfect storm,' but help is coming

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A judge from Skagit County Superior Court will temporarily be hearing cases in Whatcom County until Gov. Jay Inslee appoints a new judicial officer.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Ira J. Uhrig died May 21 after a long battle with cancer, leaving one of the four Superior Court Judge positions vacant. With several of the other judges out of the office for personal reasons or on vacation, the vacancy has created a need for a temporary judge.

Whatcom County Public Defender Starck Follis said even with one judge unavailable, it affects the ability for cases to move forward.

“Obviously we’ve only had four judges for a couple of years, since Montoya-Lewis’ appointment, so it’s not like it can’t be done with three judges. It’s sort of the perfect storm right now,” Follis said.

With Uhrig's position vacant and another judge out until June 29, Whatcom County Superior Court is essentially operating with only two judges, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Dave McEachran said.

"It definitely creates challenges for us in just trying to get judges to hear various things. We will have access to a visiting judge and that will be a very good thing to try to help us get through the short term," McEachran said.

To deal with the vacancy and unavailabilities, McEachran said the prosecutor's office works closely with the public defender's office and private attorneys to see which cases will head to trial, be continued or plead out and they make a plan for the week.

"It's sort of like being traffic directors to get the cases that are ready to go into the slot to try them. Each week it really helps when we sit down and talk and figure out what it's going to be," McEachran said.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder said scheduling is always an issue within the courts, but now even more so because four people's work is being done by two. He said the added help from Skagit and other judges in Whatcom County District Court will be appreciated.

"It makes a big difference to have that. We have to be very flexible and do things a day at a time, look at what we've got to do, what's coming up and how to get that done," Snyder said.

Skagit County Superior and Juvenile Court Administrator Lisa Tremblay said they will do whatever they can to help ease the burden. She said the two counties already work closely together and routinely transfer cases among them when there is a conflict of interest.

“The process of an unexpected passing and filling in long term is not as routine, but it’s certainly not something that can’t be achievable as far as helping each other, and we all fully intend to do that,” Tremblay said. ““Of course any time that we are able to assist and help, we want to be able to do that.”

She said the Skagit judges are looking at their upcoming schedule for trials and court cases, and will likely have a plan in place by next week to determine how often the visiting judge can hear and handle Whatcom County cases. She said even though having a judge move between two counties will add some stress in Skagit, they’re happy to help Whatcom with the transition in any way they can.

A new appointment

In the meantime, Inslee’s office is collecting applications for the Whatcom County Superior Court judicial position until June 22. After the deadline passes, Inslee’s office will review and vet the candidates, conduct interviews, and ask the current Whatcom County judges their thoughts on who they would like to see appointed, said Tip Wonhoff, deputy general counsel to the governor’s office.

Inslee's office will take recommendations, bring in a finalist or two to interview and then Inslee will make his appointment, Wonhoff said. The candidate will serve until the election in 2019. Whoever is elected will then serve out the remainder of Uhrig's term, until the next election in 2020, he said. During Inslee’s tenure he’s appointed nearly 70 judicial officers, Wonhoff said.

“We want judicial officers that can step in from day one and command respect in the courtroom and manage the courtroom. We want individuals invested in their communities, a judiciary that looks and represents all Washingtonians, is compassionate, are believers in equal justice for all, and who are going to be able to command respect,” Wonhoff said. “It’s always a challenge to predict how people will be on the bench so it’s something we take great care in doing.”

To be appointed, the person must be a licensed Washington state attorney, but they do not have to be a local Whatcom County person, Wonhoff said.

While a timeline is hard to estimate, Wonhoff said it’s possible Inslee could appoint someone by the end of the summer.

“We will move as quickly as we can because we understand the demands on the wheels of justice don’t stop because a judge’s seat is open. We will do what we can, but it will probably take some time,” Wonhoff said.

Snyder said as a judge it's important to have experience in as many areas of law as possible.

"A well-served job has need of a person who's got an even keel and good demeanor and is willing to listen carefully to make sure everybody who comes into the courtroom has a fair and complete hearing and gets treated with dignity. Those are things we would like to see in any judge," Snyder said.

Snyder said he and the other judges are looking forward to seeing who applies and the Governor appoints, and said he hoped it would happen as expeditiously as possible.

Follis, who has worked as a local attorney for more than 30 years, said he would like to see someone qualified get the position.

“I would like to see someone qualified, who’s tried some cases, appeared in court, handled criminal and civil cases because both are important, has broad background experience they can bring to the bench. I hope politics don’t enter into it as much as qualifications,” he said.

McEachran echoed both Follis' and Snyder's sentiments.

"As a litigant and from the way I look at the court system, I would really like to see someone really experienced in law, who has good experience in litigation and rules of evidence and who is a decisive person," McEachran said.

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt