Justice Suffers When There Are 'Too Many Cases, Not Enough Time'

Apr 7, 2014

Credit Flickr Photo/Joe Gratz (CC BY-NC-ND)

On a Friday in April 2013, King County District Court Judge Victoria Seitz had 66 cases on her docket. “We have too many cases and not enough court time, and so forth, to deal with them,” she announced to the court.

Last year the King County Prosecutor’s Office filed 9,700 cases. Not all of them went to trial, but they all filtered through the King County Court system. At that volume, justice becomes a constantly moving target of scheduling, preparation and delays. Some of it is strategic, but all of it affects the outcome of cases.

That day in her Burien courtroom, Judge Seitz offered anyone charged with driving with a suspended license in the third degree a deal: plead guilty that day and get either a $248 fine or 25 hours of community service. The public defender advised each defendant not to take the deal.

Still, a dozen defendants took advantage of the offer and pled guilty to a crime that went on their records. Most took community service in lieu of paying the fine.

The state Judicial Commission admonished Judge Seitz. It said she undermined the integrity of the judicial process. She was ordered to take ethics training.

Christine Jackson of the Defender Association said she has a lot of respect for Judge Sietz. “I think that she was trying to do something creative,” Jackson said. “But we have to go for longer term, more thoughtful, integrated solutions.” 

Jackson said some of her clients would be tempted to take a deal like that – even if she tells them they should take a chance and take a case to trial.

"I cannot tell you how many times we’ve advised a client to take a case to trial and they’ve said, 'I can’t because I can’t take that kind of time off of work,'" Jackson said. "Especially when we tell them that they’ve got to come to court and wait and wait and wait. And they could lose a week of work. There are many, many of our clients who cannot afford even that basic level of justice."

As a result they’re more likely to plead guilty, she said.

That day in the courtroom, the prosecutor objected too.

"There’s nothing that I enjoy less, and I’m sure my colleagues would agree with me, than calling my witness for the fifth or the sixth time,” said Erin Norgaard, who has spent more than a decade working for the King County Prosecutor’s Office. "This can have significant impacts on our witnesses’ willingness to cooperate."

The prosecution’s case does not get better over time, she added.

Norgaard said King County District Court’s heavy caseload is similar to a lot of courts in Washington. Judges divide up calendars. Clerks manage schedules packed with pretrial hearings, arraignments and everything the court handles from traffic tickets to criminal and civil cases. 

“In any given week in King County District Court, you’ve got one courtroom and one judge handling jury trials. This week we have 22 set so you can imagine how that’s going to work out,” Norgaard said.

Cases are going to get bumped.

Recently judges in King County District Court started using a provision under state law that lets cases take even longer. It allows the court extra time to hear a case that goes beyond the speedy trial expiration date of up to four more weeks.

It may be legal, but Norgaard said there’s little advantage in extending a trial. “It’s not like everyone’s sitting around doing nothing about this. I think that everybody that’s involved in the system is equally frustrated, maybe for different reasons, some of which overlap.” And so far, coming up with a workable solution is a challenge.

In a statement, King County District Court said one of its current challenges in managing case deadlines for civil and criminal cases is a statewide case management system that came out around the same time as the first IBM personal computer. The 34-year-old system is still being used today by about 150 district courts.

Court administrators said the antiquated system can’t help them look for trends in caseload deadlines and figure out what works.

Since September, King County District Court in Kent has been piloting a program: Instead of bouncing from judge to judge, cases are assigned to one judge who oversees them from beginning to end.

While many in the court believe this scenario will improve accountability and move cases along more quickly, it’s hard to tell under the current system.