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Sunday, December 3, 2023
Dec. 3, 2023

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Cowlitz County nixes Superior Court judge request

Delays in court cases likely after sixth judge denied


LONGVIEW—Cowlitz County Superior Court plans to cut dockets, likely leading to delays in resolving court cases, after Cowlitz County commissioners voted down a request for a sixth judge.

The state recommends Cowlitz County Superior Court have two more judges than today, and the number of qualified attorneys to cover cases in lieu of judges is dwindling — all leading to a lag in the justice system, said Presiding Judge Gary Bashor.

County commissioners Arne Mortensen and Rick Dahl last week voted down requesting the Legislature to create the position, stating the judicial system is broken, while Commissioner Dennis Weber approved, saying “a sixth judge is part of the solution.”

“It’s only going to get worse if we don’t make any changes,” Weber said.

If approved, the Washington state governor would have appointed the judge in 2025 and the position would have gone to a citizen vote the next election.

Cowlitz County Superior Court

Cases filed

2019: 5,733

2020: 4,233

2021: 4,157

2022: 4,878

Cases resolved

2019: 5,334

2020: 3,269

2021: 4,092

2022: 4,484

SOURCE: Washington State Center for Court Research

How many local judges are needed?

Washington State Center for Court Research reports more judges are needed in local counties’ superior courts.

Cowlitz: Five judges, with recommendations for seven.

Clark: 10 current judges, with recommendations for about 16.

Lewis: Three judges, with recommendations for six.

Source: Superior Court Judicial Needs Estimate, 2020

Weber said he approved the request partially based on the Washington State Center for Court Research’s advice to hire two more Superior Court judges based on the county’s caseload. Superior Court handles cases like criminal felonies.

The new, fulltime judge was requested to replace an attorney who works as a court commissioner 3/4 of a fulltime shift and can’t cover jury trials, said Bashor. The new judge could cover another roughly 25 percent of cases, helping to quicken resolutions as caseloads continue to grow, he added.

“I’ve been working in this field for 23 years and it’s been an increasing caseload since I started …,” Bashor said.

The appointment would also save county money, he argued.

A new judge would knock $48,000 off the county’s budget, he said, as the county would only be responsible for half the judge’s salary, and the state would foot the bill for the other half and benefits like health care.

The court commissioner looking to be replaced is paid roughly $160,000, while the county portion for the judge would be about $114,000, Bashor said. That court commissioner is the only one who works regularly, while the other court commissioners work as needed.

Mortensen sees the state money as taxpayer money, and therefore not a savings, he said. He said the judge would likely need an assistant and additional clerks, which would also cost.

Mortensen, who took office in 2017, said he didn’t understand how the county’s fifth judge — OK’d in 2006 and appointed in 2017 — remedied any court proceedings, so it is difficult to throw more money at a broken system, especially as the court’s budget continues to grow.

Dahl said Cowlitz County isn’t the only county using court commissioners in lieu of judges, so “we’re not really different.” He said he couldn’t morally approve the request because the system doesn’t work for the citizens and that judicial appointments are made for political reasons.

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