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King County Council OKs millions for courts overwhelmed by pandemic backlog

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King County courts are facing a problem, and the King County Council has agreed to shell out tens of millions of dollars to try and solve it.

Courts in the county are experiencing a tremendous backlog of cases of every kind, be it criminal or civil. The pandemic switch to conducting court proceedings in virtual format included a learning curve for everyone in the court system as well as a drop in efficiency.

The pandemic backlog is only compounded by the unforeseen impacts of the Washington state Supreme Court’s State v. Blake decision made in April. The ruling found that language in the state’s law prohibiting simple possession of illicit drugs was unconstitutional because it did not require proof that a defendant had intent to break the law.

According to the ordinance passed by the council which allotted $19.5 million to the judicial system on Tuesday, the State v. Blake ruling invalidates drug possession convictions dating back to 1971. The county estimates petitions from as many as 50,000 defendants will need to be carefully screened to determine legal eligibility for their release or compensation.

During the July 27 council meeting, many lawyers testified in favor of emergency court funding.

Erin Seeberger spoke on behalf of the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers Association, noting that both prosecutors and defense attorneys generally agree on the issue. She said it will be the civil court that suffers from lack of funding.

“It’s an access to justice issue,” Seeberger added.

She claimed that of the 21,000 civil cases filed in 2019, only a little more than 200 have been resolved in court.

Family law attorney, Michael Louden, emphasized the importance of finding a timely resolution to important family cases in which income, assets and the terms of contact with children are disputed. He said for parents and families engaged in these cases, it is the most important thing in their life at the time.

Louden said currently it could take years for these trials to be resolved in court, and waiting can be risky for children involved as parents may engage in unhealthy behavior, with parents withholding children from the other parent, or even putting kids in situations of abuse or neglect.

He described how lack of access to courts can create a situation he compared to getting monthly check-ups at the emergency room, as family living situations devolve into being dangerous or unhealthy.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Jamal Whitehead, former president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, which is the state’s largest and oldest minority bar.

Some lawyers testified against the large funding allocations to the courts, like attorney Henry Hwang, who urged the council to not “double-down” on systems that have historically disadvantaged people of color.

Criminal defense lawyer Laura Robinett testified that the court’s backlog was “exacerbated by COVID, but not created by it”. She said the backlog has existed for years due to the prosecutor’s that were eager to press an abundance of charges into the system even when evidence exists to prove defendants were innocent.

She urged the council members not to funnel federal American Rescue Plan dollars into the courts as proposed by Ordinance 2021-0238.

“Throwing money at the courts will not clear the backlog,” Robinett said.

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Cameron Sheppard

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Cameron Sheppard