The pandemic forced thousands of King County Superior Court cases to be put on hold, creating a backlog that will take years to clear. Years before crime victims can find a measure of closure or for defendants to confront their accusers. Years of delayed divorce proceedings and custody hearings that will prove a painful reminder that justice delayed is justice denied.
“We want people to have some faith in the institutions that we’ve created,” said Mary Ellen Stone, head of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. “To have to wait so long can fundamentally erode our confidence that things work.”
How badly that delay ripples through the rest of the judicial system and impacts even more lives is up to the Metropolitan King County Council.
The Council is expected to vote next week on its last COVID-19 supplemental budget before August recess. The King County courts are among those vying for the last tranche — about $70 million — of federal funds available under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Council members are balancing a host of concerns and demands on that money but ensuring swift justice for all must be a top priority.
Failing to do so would be catastrophic. There are more than 3,000 pending cases involving violent crime in King County Superior Court, including more than 250 murders and more than 400 sexual assault and child abuse cases.
The courts are required by state law to prioritize criminal matters. Without adequate additional funding, clearing that backlog will be slowed further and family law and civil matters will essentially be left at a standstill as judges focus on criminal cases.
“There will be many civil and family law cases that just won’t be able to be tried,” said Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers, who estimated there would be at least 500 child custody and divorce cases that could go unheard over the next three years. Civil cases such as business disputes, personal injury and medical malpractice would be similarly affected.
In King County District Court, which handles misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases, more than 9,000 traffic infractions await a hearing as the court is “barely keeping up with criminal work,” said District Court Presiding Judge Susan Mahoney.
Small claims cases, which top out at $10,000 and don’t require legal representation, are also in limbo.
“For people who could never afford an attorney and have landlord/tenant disputes, or property disputes or contract disputes, this is their only venue to address those types of claims,” she said. “At this moment, our capacity for those cases is zero.”
Rogers has asked the county for $34.1 million over three years to bring in additional judges. While Mahoney had requested $15.4 million over the same period and proposed adding night courts and Saturday hearings.
In the appropriations budget, County Executive Dow Constantine countered with $3.6 million for Superior Court and $2.1 million for District Court for September 2021 through December 2022. Figures so low for the stated need that one may wonder if it was a typo.
For the sake of King County residents, the council must do a lot better.