The Washington court system belongs to the people. Voters elect judges, from municipal court to county superior court to appeals court to the state Supreme Court. These are public courts, accountable to the people.
Yet the state’s highest court has chosen to implement a sweeping change to the handling of juvenile records that will stir chaos in the legal system, prevent residents from holding their elected judges accountable and even, potentially, smear some of the young people the new rule purports to protect.
So concerned is the Washington prosecutors association that its leaders are recommending members not make any new juvenile filings until they get clearer direction from the court, when the rules are expected to take effect.
Especially troubling, though, is that the court has set the change to occur Tuesday, ignoring entreaties from court officers and open government advocates to hold off. The changes to General Rule 31 and Criminal Court Rule 2.1 were proposed by the state Office of Public Defense and the Minority & Justice Commission.
The rule would eliminate the use of full names of juveniles in the court system; instead they will be identified only by their initials and date of birth.
The goal is an important one: To protect young people from repercussions of their early brushes with the court system. Creative but thoughtful solutions are needed to address the court system, which has disproportionately impacted people of color. But, the justices are plowing ahead with a plan that legal system partners warn will do more harm than good.
The court published the proposed rule in October, inviting written comments. Led by Chief Justice Steven González, the court merely invited written comments, rather than engaging a robust discussion among the community of court officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others. On March 31, González was joined by justices Charles Johnson, Debra Stephens, Susan Owens, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Mary Yu, G. Helen Whitener and Barbara Madsen in signing an order adopting the rule. Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis did not vote.
The rule, and the court’s apparent indifference to discussion with the very people who have to carry it out, has created an uproar. On April 21, association leaders of the state county clerks; superior court judges; district and municipal judges; juvenile court administrators; and representatives of the Washington State Patrol and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs sent a letter, raising many concerns about how to follow existing law, keep the public safe and meet the justices’ intended goals.
Yep, pretty much the folks that keep the wheels of justice moving, are worried about the system functioning. Joining the letter are media representatives, including broadcasters and newspaper publishers, whose charge it is to keep the public informed of the public agencies, including the courts. Their list is long and the full letter is worth reading.
Yet, the days passed with only cricket chirps emanating from the Temple of Justice in Olympia.
On Thursday, Dolly N. Hunt, president of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, followed up with another letter. This one implored the justices to pause the rule implementation before Tuesday to prevent any problematic chaos in the system:
“If it is not possible to pause implementation before May 3, we want to let you know that it is our strong recommendation that our members not file any new juvenile cases, pleadings, or documents on the morning of May 3 that may fall
under this rule due to those complications,” she wrote.
The court’s behavior is confounding — and unbecoming of the highest court in the state. Rather than visionary leadership that inspires necessary and righteous reform to embed equity in the court system, this reckless indifference to the concerns of other public officials, including many fellow elected judges, exposes brazen dysfunction at the high court. The lower courts, the state residents and, yes, the young people that these rule changes ostensibly are intended to protect deserve better. A lot better
The court’s conduct should be front and center as voters evaluate supreme court candidates. Justices run for six-year terms. Madsen, Yu and Whitener are up for election this year.
For the sake of the state, the high court should pause implementation of GR 31 and CrR 2.1 changes. Then, a constructive discussion about how to meet intended goals can be had.
For the sake of everyone, justices, do better.