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Shelton Mason County Journal
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Mason County Journal
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January 30, 2014     Shelton Mason County Journal
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January 30, 2014
 

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Bill would add third Superior Court judge Proposed measure wouM provide 'flexibility' on bench By NATALIE JOHNSON natalie@masoncounty.com Mason County Superior Court might soon get a third judge, which officials say could help the court resolve crimi- nal and civil cases more efficiently. "We are asking for a third Superior Court judge for flexibility," said Judge Amber Finlay. Senate Bill 5981, which adds a third judge to Mason County Superior Court, was forwarded Jan. 23 to the Senate Rules Committee for a second reading. The bill was sponsored by Sens. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, Adam Kline, D-Se- attle, Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla and Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, by a re- quest from the state Board for Judicial Administration. Tim Sheldon, who is Toni Sheldon's borther, said the bill could come up for a vote Wednesday, after the Mason County Journal's press time. Finlay, along with fellow Superior Court Judge Toni Sheldon, said Mason County needs a third judge to cope with 11 court calendars. These calendars in- clude criminal, civil and drug court, and a high number of cases that proceed to trial compared with similar counties. As of Nov. 30, 2013, Mason County had 53 criminal trials proceed to court, significantly more than other counties with two judges. At that time, Island County had eight criminal trials, Okan- ogan had nine, Walla Walla had 16 and Kittitas had 18. Since 2008, Mason County has con- sistently conducted between two and six times more criminal trials than Journal photo by Natalie Johnson Mason County Superior Court Judge Toni Sheldon presides over the criminal calendar Monday morning. The state Legislature is considering a bill that would add a third Superior Court judge for Mason County. "There are a lot of civil (and) domestic cases that aren't getting out as quickly as they should." Amber Finlay, Mason County Superior Court judge Walla Walla County, which, like Ma- son County, has a population of about 60,000, according to Sheldon and Fin- lay. Mason County last added a Supe- rior Court judge in 1992, and has had two elected Superior Court judges ever since. "Mason County has always had a large number of criminal trials," Finlay said. "If you have a county that has a lot more trials, it's harder tbr us to get the rest of those cases to resolution ... There are a lot of civil (and) domestic cases that aren't getting out as quickly as they should." According to a summary of the bill presented Jan. 15 to the Senate Com- mittee on Law & Justice, 67 percent of civil trials in Mason County start on schedule. The Washington State Administra- tive Office of the Courts (AOC) has es- timated that Mason County needs more than two judges to complete its cases. This estimate, Toni Sheldon said, does not take into account the time it takes to resolve each case. A seven-day trial counts the same as a 10-minute hear- ing, Sheldon said. "Because this isn't new to us -- we know we have a lot of trials -- we have tried to make changes to make more time in our days," Finlay said. The judges now schedule meetings at 7:30 a.m. and noon and have eliminated settlement conferences, status confer- ences and the Tuesday show cause cal- endar. Mediation is now required in all civil cases before they head to trial. "This is working," Sheldon said. The county's two elected judges both hear criminal trials, and often have to hear civil trials in bits and pieces, when they have time. Civil trials often get bumped to make time for criminal tri- als, the judges said. "It's not an efficient way for a judge to hear a case," Sheldon said. Sheldon said hearing a civil case in a piecemeal fashion is also very difficult for the litigants in the cases, which she said are often emotional. Sheldon and Finlay switch off ev- ery four months .on the criminal and civil calendars. A full-time county court commissioner presides over the domes- tic calendar, dependency court, drug court and juvenile court, among others. They receive about $115,000 per year in salary and benefits. A court commissioner can preside over most hearings, but not trials. Sheldon and Finlay said adding a third judge, rather than relying on a court commissioner, might save the county money. Court commissioners make 75 per- cent of the salary of a judge, and the county pays for their salary and ben- efits. The state will pay half of a judge's salary and all of their benefits, Finlay said. If the bill is passed by both the state House and Senate, the third judge would likely start in 2015, and would be appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee. The position would then be up for election in the next general election, in 2016. 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