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.

In quick fashion, the Senate Law and Justice Committee unanimously passed Senate Bill 5003 creating an additional judgment, bringing the county’s total 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 40%, leading to larger caseloads, she tested. And a pandemic-driven backlog continues to stress judicial resources, she noted.

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

The message resonated with senators.

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

Snohomish County’s District Court is made up of four divisions — Cascade, Everett, Evergreen and South. They handle infractions, along with criminal traffic and criminal non-traffic violations.

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

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

The county’s District Court handles more filings annually than every other district court in the state, except King County, Rancourt told senators.

She said there were 55,000 matters filed between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 last year compared to 42,180 filings in Pierce County District 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. Protection order requests 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 county is set by statute. Any changes are made by the Legislature based on recommendations from the Board for Judicial Administration. That panel draws up its recommendation from an annual analysis of the workload of each district and superior court, done by the Administrative Office of the Courts. His last analyzes have noted a need for another judge in Snohomish County.

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

“Snohomish County is ready to get started 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 ahead of possible action by the full Senate.

This 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.