County court will be taped again

EVERETT – Audio recordings of legal proceedings held in front of Snohomish County court commissioners have resumed after more than three months without recording.

Superior Court judges stopped the recordings in March, but ordered resumption after an Everett advocate of equal treatment for all parties in divorce cases lobbied for them.

“I appealed to do the right thing,” said Mark Mahnkey. “Something good happened so people can see what’s going on in the courts if they care to look.”

Superior Court administrator Bob Terwilliger went to the judges with Mahnkey’s argument, and they voted last month to resume the digital recordings. They started last week.

Commissioner proceedings are not considered “courts of record,” and there’s no verbatim record taken by a court reporter, such as is made in hearings before the judges.

Terwilliger said he thought it would be good public policy to resume the recordings, even though it’s not legally required.

“Even though you don’t have to do something, sometimes the better decision is to do it,” Terwilliger said. Also, he polled 10 other counties in the state and found that they all record commissioner hearings.

Mahnkey is a member of two organizations that are pushing for joint custody of children in divorce cases. They include the Other Parent group and the Washington Civil Rights Council.

Mahnkey said the courts all too often award sole custody to one parent, and both parents should have the legal right to guide children after a divorce.

Most family law matters are heard in front of court commissioners, who are hired by the judges. Judges hear appeals of commissioner decisions and conduct divorce trials.

Until March, the commissioner hearings were recorded and kept by the court administrator’s office for only six months.

“The recordings were not meant to be an official record of the proceedings,” presiding Judge Thomas Wynne said then.

When asked for advice on the issue, the Snohomish County prosecutor’s office told the judges that they are required to file the recordings with the Snohomish County Clerk – if they are made.

They are to be kept for six years. However, the law doesn’t require the recordings in the first place, the judges were advised in March.

That’s when the judges stopped the recordings.

Early this month, the judges reversed themselves, ordering resumption of the recordings and requiring the county clerk to keep them.

Early this year, Mahnkey pushed for keeping the recordings longer. When the recording stopped, Mahnkey pushed for resumption.

Part of keeping an eye on government is “knowing what family courts are up to,” Mahnkey said.

“My interest is driving out better results for kids, parents ands their extended families by having both parents continuing to be involved regularly and influentially in their kid’s lives” after a divorce, he said.

The recording issue came to Mahnkey’s attention through a friend, and he took up the challenge. He’s divorced and has three sons.

“I don’t want them to go through what I went through if they ever get divorced,” Mahnkey said.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or haley@heraldnet.com.

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