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Judge pleads for help

The Island County District Court in Oak Harbor is like a balloon filled to capacity. Too many more cases and it might pop.

“Right now it is just about bursting at the seams,” said Judge Peter Strow during a presentation to the Board of Island County Commissioners Wednesday. “It’s the worst it’s been in 10 years.”

To handle the caseload increase, Strow said adding a second elected judge is crucial.

The change in the makeup of law enforcement agencies’ ticketing policies has affected a 35 to 40 percent increase in citations. The volume of hearings has increased exponentially. Tuesdays and Wednesdays have become marathon court days.

“That’s been going on for quite some time,” the judge said. “I don’t see anything that’s going to change that.”

Through June for Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley, the District Court has seen almost 7,000 filings. Exacerbating the volume problem, scheduling has become a puzzle with few solutions. A state code allows attorneys to file a motion to have a case heard by a judge rather than a commissioner. If Strow is on vacation, a judge pro-tem is hired.

“That’s not helping with the scheduling at all,” the judge said.

A second judge would help add continuity to the court for when Strow retires, he said. It would also bring more compliance, as the Supreme Court has pushed for full-time judges. If the workload continues at the current rate, Strow said the commissioners should plan to file a request with the state before the Legislature convenes in 2009. The next District Court judge election will be held in 2010. For another judge to become a reality, the state will examine the caseload and determine if the extra elected position is needed. Part of the annual salary would be reimbursed.

Strow said Oak Harbor is on board as well. Commissioner Mike Shelton asked if the city could pull out in the end after the judge approval process was concluded.

“Their process of pulling out is not easy either,” the judge said.

The gravity of the current situation at the District Dourt is that even two judges will not be enough. The 8th Street courtroom facility in Oak Harbor will need to be expanded in the future. More hearing rooms would be necessary if the same hours are kept. If the hours are expanded and staggered over a longer workday, additional manpower would be required.

Satellite courts are a possibility, Strow said, but then travel expenses and other costs become an issue.

Clerical staff is another concern at the court.

“We will need four additional clerical people over the next five years, especially if we have a new judge,” Strow said.

Shelton suggested that finding a new, more accommodating location and facility for the court might be the best solution.

“I sometimes wonder if you don’t swallow hard and start over,” he said.

The commissioner acknowledged that the county will have to do some planning. Strow replied that with the 2010 election timeline, the judge quandary will not have to be tackled for another year.

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