Senate panel backs bill adding another judge in Snohomish County

Senate panel backs bill adding another judge in Snohomish County

OLYMPIA — A legislative push to increase the number of District Court judges in Snohomish County cleared its first hurdle Thursday.

Quickly, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 5003 creating one additional judge, bringing the total number of the circuit to 9.

The vote came two days after a public hearing in which Presiding District Court Judge Jennifer Rancourt told senators it would be the first expansion of the bench in a quarter century. Since then, the county’s population has grown by 40%, leading to higher caseloads, she testified. And a pandemic-driven caseload continues to stress judicial resources, she noted.

“It’s time to add another judge,” Rancourt said.

The message resonated with senators.

“I think the people in Snohomish County did it together. We’re all for the bill,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the ranking Republican on the panel.

The Snohomish County Court consists of four divisions – Cascade, Everett, Evergreen and South. They deal with offences, along with criminal trafficking and non-trafficking criminal offences.

District courts also handle small claims, civil lawsuits, name changes, anti-harassment orders, and domestic violence protection orders. Snohomish County also offers other services, such as a mental health court, that require the attention and involvement of court officers.

Rancourt is the only judge in Cascade. There are three judges in the South Division and two each in the Everett and Evergreen divisions. There is also a commissioner who splits time between the Cascade and Everett divisions.

The county’s District Court handles more cases each year than any other district court in the state except King County, Rancourt told senators.

She said there were 55,000 cases filed between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 last year compared to 42,180 filings in Pierce County Court. Under state law, Pierce County can have 11 judges.

“My division has seen a 38 percent increase in criminal filings between 2019 and 2022,” she said. Requests for protection orders alone rose from 293 in 2021 to 334 in 2022, a nearly 14 percent increase in a single year, she said.

The number of District Court judges in each district is determined by statute. Any changes are made by the Legislature based on the recommendations of the Judicial Administration Board. This panel derives its recommendation from an annual analysis of the workload of each district and superior court, conducted by the Administrative Office of the Courts. Her recent analysis has pointed to the need for another judge in Snohomish County.

There is no cost to the state since counties are required to pick up the full tab for wages and benefits. Snohomish County’s current budget contains money to pay for a new judge starting in July, if the legislation passes and is signed by the governor.

“Snohomish County is ready to start and move forward with this,” Stephanie Wright, executive policy officer for Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, told the committee.

The bill sponsored by Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, now goes to the Rules Committee before possible action by the full Senate.

The effort comes a year after Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law allowing the county to hire two additional Superior Court judges.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; [email protected]; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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