November 24, 2008

Locking the courthouse doors

I recently blogged about how the current economic crisis is affecting public defender services, creating a potentially unconstitutional situation in which indigent clients cannot get adequate legal help.

Now, at least one county is proposing to curtail essential court services in order to balance the budget.

That is also unconstitutional, says the presiding judge.

The judge of the King County (Seattle), Washington court, the state's largest court, is taking the unusual step of going public. In an opinion piece in the Seattle Times, he reminds the public of the county's duty to adequately fund not only the courts but also the prosecutor and the public defender -- "There is only so much that can be cut before the administration of justice is undermined."

Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer also pointed out the penny-wise, pound-foolish nature of the wild budget slashing occurring these days.

For example, Seattle's Drug Court is a nationally recognized model that brings in $3.7 million biannually from the state. That money will be forfeited if the Drug Court shuts down. Taxpayers will also lose in the long run if more drug offenders are incarcerated rather than rehabilitated.

In responding to the county proposal to close the court for 10 working days next year, Judge Hilyer delivers a basic civics lesson:
A core principle of our system of government is three branches, each with authority independent of the other. The legislative branch sets policy, the executive branch implements it and the independent judiciary protects the rule of law and the rights of the individual against the other powers of the state…. The drafters of our state constitution foresaw the risk that one branch of government might force closure on another branch. To prevent this, our constitution provides that the superior court "shall always be open, except on nonjudicial days," which are weekends and holidays. …. Apart from weekends and holidays, the courts may be closed only in physical emergencies like snowstorms, floods or earthquakes….

King County faces some very hard choices. But no matter what they are, we cannot afford to suspend our citizens' access to justice by closing our courts.
The full article, "King County Superior Court cannot be closed," is online here.

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