Even with the budget hole they're facing, state lawmakers should consider paying for a larger share of the state's court system. Washington ranks 50th among all states in its support...

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Even with the budget hole they’re facing, state lawmakers should consider paying for a larger share of the state’s court system.

Washington ranks 50th among all states in its support of the court system. Most of the burden falls to counties where tax bases that support courts and other services vary widely. The result is what Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander calls a “crazy quilt” of resources and standards that varies from county to county.
A judiciary task force released a report earlier this month that estimated Washington’s court system fell about $200 million short to ensure equal justice throughout the state. Among the examples, the task force’s “Justice in Jeopardy” report recalled the case of 3-year-old Zy’Nyia Nobles who was killed by her mother. She might still be alive if only a Pierce County courtroom had been available in 2000 for a hearing on whether to terminate parental rights.

The disparity in public-defense services is especially dramatic, as chronicled in April by a Seattle Times series, “The Empty Promise of an Equal Defense.” Two-thirds of the state’s counties use public-defense contracts to represent indigent accused. While legal groups recommend that a public defender have no more than 150 felony cases a year, one Grant County lawyer, who was later disbarred, had 413; a Cowlitz lawyer had 6-1/2 times the recommended amount.

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The state’s patchwork court system suggests a parallel to the pre-1977 disparities between state school districts. That year, the Doran decision ordered that the state establish a dependable tax source to equalize education resources across the state.

In May, the Washington State Bar Association board of governors agreed unanimously to press for reforms that include better state funding and oversight.

The disparity weighs heavily on judicial officials who oversee the state system. Chief Justice Alexander will highlight the funding report in his State of the Judiciary address in January.

The Board for Judicial Administration will ask for $32 million over the next two years to help counties shore up their justice systems. Among the suggestions is having the state contribute about $12.5 million annually to public-defense costs, subsidize half of district-court judge salaries (as it currently does superior-court judges) and pay half the costs of juries.

Although the Legislature faces a budget deficit, the Board for Judicial Administration’s request should be considered among priorities for the state budget.