Voters should keep local control of judges

Joyce Mulliken

"Of the lawyers, by the lawyers, and for the lawyers." That’s what proposed ballot measure ESJR 8208 really amounts to. ESJR 8208 is a measure that was originally requested by the courts, consisting of — you guessed it — judges and lawyers. It enhances their powers — and the pocketbooks of the legal profession. It’s the people who pay a heavy price by losing certain constitutional rights they now enjoy.

ESJR 8208 is a proposed amendment to our state constitution. Its current sponsors and supporters are — you guessed it — mostly judges, lawyers and people who work closely with or for judges and lawyers. They allege that by taking away or watering down existing constitutional protections for litigants before the court, the legal system will become more "efficient" and at "no extra cost." But what price can be put on our right to a capable, fair and unbiased judge who is directly accountable to the people he or she serves? The price they ask is way too high.

"Pro tempore" judges are "judges" who are appointed temporarily to hear cases. Most "pro tem" judges are attorneys who have never been elected by the people. Under current law, our state constitution provides that a case in the superior court may be tried by a "judge pro tempore" but only if both parties agree in writing. This protects the parties and gives them the right to choose a capable and fair person as their judge.

Even though ESJR 8208 attempts to provide some protections, it would ultimately force parties before the court to accept pro tem judges without their agreement if the judge is a "sitting elected judge" and is acting "pursuant to Supreme Court rule" even if the parties strongly oppose the person being appointed. This is something our constitution currently does not allow.

Simply by rule-making, ESJR 8208 permits the state Supreme Court effectively to merge the municipal, district and superior courts statewide, so elected judges from any level of court anywhere could be assigned to cases in any superior court. Elected judges effectively cease to have geographic or jurisdictional limits if any of them can judge such cases statewide. A judge from Seattle who has a whole different life experience and a whole different electorate hearing a case in Yakima against the will of the parties just doesn’t make sense. And who will be making those rules — you guessed it — judges and lawyers. We don’t need or want assembly line justice.

ESJR 8208 substantially restricts judicial accountability to the voters. The people of each community should maintain their control over who their judges will be. It is difficult enough now to remove bad judges who sit on the bench. It will be impossible if local voters can’t vote on unworthy or undesirable judges because they don’t even have to live in their communities.

ESJR 8208 provides that such rules require assignments of pro tem judges "based on the judges’ experience." But although experience may provide a certain "expertise" it is certainly no guarantee a judge will be competent or unbiased. And even though the measure itself gives parties one opportunity for a change of pro tem judges, with such a vast pool of judges available statewide they may know absolutely nothing about the qualifications, character or background of the judges assigned to their cases. Most people know how frustrating the legal system is — from attorneys who overcharge and don’t return phone calls to judges who don’t spend enough time in the courtroom. These are just some of the things that clog the system and waste taxpayer money. Inefficiencies and incompetency aren’t solved by bringing in judges who aren’t accountable to the people. ESJR 8208 only enhances the same "good-old-boy" network — with all its problems — at our expense.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, any of us could be forced to go to court at any time. What kind of judge would you want hearing your case? Would you want to lose your right to help choose your judge? Do you want to give up your opportunity to hold that judge responsible for his or her actions?

We, the people, currently have a protected right to elect judges from the communities we live in and in which they serve. This is an important right because those we elect sit in judgment over our lives, property and freedoms. This right ensures judges we may face in court live in our midst and share our values. If they prove to be incompetent, if they show favoritism, or if they are corrupt we can vote them out at the next election. We must protect our right to elect our judges and not hand that right over to the legal profession.

This will ensure that government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" will long endure. Please vote no on ESJR 8208.

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