Retiring Superior Court judge Paula Casey made a difference

The Thurston County Superior Court system lost one of its true innovators this week, as Presiding Judge Paula Casey stepped down on Tuesday.

After serving seven four-year terms in Superior Court, and two prior years as a court commissioner, Casey’s 30 years on the bench rank her third in seniority among the 180 Superior Court judges in the state.

The loss to the Thurston courts is not just the experience she brought to many complex cases. Her passion for changing the role of the judiciary is arguably her greatest contribution.

Casey was always on the leading edge. She was the only woman in her 1972 law school graduating class, and later, at age 36, she became one of the youngest women judges elected in Washington state.

But it was the concept for a Unified Family Court that has defined her judicial career.

Concerned that children and families waited in crowded courthouse hallways alongside hardened criminals, and sometimes violent offenders, Casey championed the idea of a separate court for family matters.

Thurston County launched the first full-service Unified Family Court in the state, and Casey is today considered a national expert on the subject, often traveling to speak and advocate for the concept in other jurisdictions.

Our Superior Court is widely known as a progressive court because of its willingness to embrace nontraditional judicial models. Casey has been a leader in this movement that has resulted in many new programs under the family court umbrella.

Those have included orientation classes for families without attorneys to give them a roadmap through the system and defusing conflict. Casey introduced the idea of parenting classes to help children whose parents are divorcing and to show parents how to keep their kids out of the middle of the conflict.

As a founding member of the Dispute Resolution Center, Casey brought the concept to Superior Court in 1995, and expanded it to a “Dispute Resolution Week” in 2000, during which judges and volunteer mediators gave a week of the court’s time to mediating disputes rather than litigating them. It is now a year-round program achieving success in settling cases outside of court.

Casey has also taken the lead on writing reports and brochures aimed at the public and others in the judicial system to inform about what the courts do and demystify the process.

In the community, Casey’s volunteer work runs deep. As a United Way of Thurston County volunteer, she has been an advocate for early learning on its “Success by Six” initiative since its inception in 2003. She and her husband, Nick Handy, are generous local philanthropists.

No one may miss Casey more than Bev Morgan. She has been Casey’s judicial assistant for the entire three decades. Morgan says she will “miss Judge Casey terribly,” but adds that it is the court system itself that will miss her leadership.