In Our View: Build Here, Feds

U.S. District courthouse is needed in this corner of Washington

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The question is not if a federal courthouse will be built and fully staffed in Vancouver but when. For now, because of the lingering economic crisis, the answer appears to be “not anytime soon.” But the need persists, and Clack County residents can continue to dream about the distant day when the federal government is drenched in newfound, post-recovery riches.

It was encouraging to see another voice added last week to the chorus calling for a U.S. District courthouse here. U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, Western Washington’s top federal attorney, visited Vancouver and spoke about the need for a federal courthouse. Durkan, whose offices are in Seattle, met with Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik and later told a Columbian reporter that a federal courthouse in Vancouver ranks high among her priorities.

Six years ago we editorialized that building a federal courthouse in Vancouver “could take from five to 20 years.” That was before the Great Recession, so we’re probably no closer to that reality. Meanwhile, participants in U.S. District Court cases must drive two hours to the nearest federal courthouse in Tacoma. As a Columbian story last week noted, defendants can make preliminary appearances at the Federal Building across from the Clark County Courthouse in downtown Vancouver, but resolution of their cases must take place in Tacoma.

There is no federal judge and no assistant U.S. attorneys in Vancouver; part-time magistrates assist here, and local deputy prosecutors act as special federal prosecutors.

Yes, there is the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, but that’s in a different district, and federal law requires anyone arrested in a specific judicial district to appear before the judge in that district.

Federal courts try civil and criminal cases that address violations of income tax and narcotics laws, methamphetamine trafficking, bank robbery, mail theft and counterfeiting. Other federal cases involve constitutional rights, navigable-waters issues, disputes between two or more states and controversies to which the United States is a party. Federal courts in some cases typically impose harsher sentences than lower courts.

Clearly, Southwest Washington is increasingly underserved when it comes to the federal judicial system, and one of the local leaders who is responsible for keeping this issue alive is U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas. Her predecessor, Brian Baird, for several years led the crusade to have a federal courthouse built here. In 2005, he got the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to authorize a study by the General Services Administration, directed at the need for a federal courthouse in Vancouver. He introduced legislation in 2007, at which time U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said, “While this will be a long process, I will continue to work toward the day when Vancouver residents no longer have to travel two to three hours to the closest federal courthouse.”

Murray is right, it’s a long process. And Baird was correct in 2005 when he said, “The heavy lifting will come when it’s time to get the money.”

That time is not here, but when it arrives, our state’s congressional delegation must be fully prepared to strengthen the call for a federal courthouse here. We’re glad Durkan is willing to keep focusing on the need, even through these difficult economic times, and we hope Herrera Beutler soon will help build the momentum.