With Additional Funds Allocated to the King County Superior Court, Presiding Judge Rogers Anticipates Criminal Backlogs Will Be Eased, and Civil Cases Will Be Tried
Tuesday, August 24, 2021
by: Chris Luhrs

Section: Summer 2021

Chris Luhrs is an associate in the Seattle office of Holt Woods & Scisciani LLP whose practice is focused on representing businesses and individuals in complex civil litigation, including insurance and tort defense. Chris is recognized as a top-rated business litigation attorney in Seattle, WA, and was selected as a Super Lawyers Rising Star for 2020 and 2021.
July 27, 2021, marked a significant day for our legal system in its ongoing battle to administer justice during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was passed, which meant King County was to receive approximately $437 million to address impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including impacts on the King County legal system.

By July, all but $70 million of those funds had been spent. But, on July 27th, the Metropolitan King County Council approved more than $42 million in funding for the King County legal system. Of that amount, $10.9 million will be allocated to the King County Superior Court.

While it falls short of the amount requested by the Superior Court – $34.1 million over a period of three years – Presiding Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers believes $10.9 million will allow the Court to operate in an effective manner.  And, the amount exceeds the $3.6 million allotments proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine as a part of the county’s eighth supplemental appropriations budget.

Judge Rogers explained, “We did ask for more money on the outset, and essentially we went back to the drawing board when the executive proposed adding almost no money.”  With the allocated funds, Judge Rogers expects the Court will “be able to get a lot of work done.”

The work to be done has been an issue of substantial reporting, particularly as the King County Superior Court continues to navigate challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Seattle Times Reporter Sara Jean Green noted in a July 11, 2021 article that more than 250 murder cases await trial in Superior Court while approximately 400 alleged victims have been waiting almost two years to provide testimony against those accused of sexual assault2.  It was further reported that in May 2019, roughly 3,200 felony cases were pending, which figure had nearly doubled by July 2021.

Again, Judge Rogers is optimistic the funds received will go a long way to address those pending cases and provided insight into the areas that will receive additional funding, including a “criminal backlog” defined as cases involving “certain violent crimes,” which are limited cases involving murder, sexual assaults of adults and children, assaults in 1st degree and 2nd degree, including domestic violence, and robbery in 1st degree which includes a weapon or actual force.

While the $10.9 million will likely not eliminate the backlog – which may take up to three years to resolve entirely – Judge Rogers believes “significant progress” can be made. He added that “[t]he King County council was phenomenal. They listened to us and they really gave us the money we need.”

Judge Rogers noted that ensuring that non-criminal matters are able to be litigated was critical to the Court’s plan to allocate funds received.  He pointed to both the Washington State Association for Justice and Washington Defense Trial Lawyers as being key partners during this challenging time.

“One of our major goals was to not impede civil and family law access and, frankly, the civil and family law bar – especially the Washington State Association for Justice and Washington Defense Trial Lawyers – that alliance was incredibly helpful for us during this time. And, so you saw representatives from both of those groups and that was just fantastic. People kept saying, ‘well, we’ve never actually worked together like this, but this is something we can both get behind and so we want to deliver on that and I think we can deliver on that.”  He added that funding has ensured access for civil cases and family law cases, which is “very positive.”

Concerning the manner by which funds will be allocated, Judge Rogers estimated that roughly 25% will go toward criminal cases, while the rest will be dedicated to civil, family law, dependency and juvenile matters.  Funding will support an additional six judges who will preside over criminal matters for a period of eighteen (18) months, which he hopes will increase capacity and allow cases to move more quickly. An additional judge will also be added to the family law department and a judicial officer will be added to preside over evictions.  Funding will also mean more staff can support judges, more interpreters can serve litigants and the previously very small IT department will grow.

Additional variables have led to court backlogs, including the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Blake, which voided convictions for simple possession of drugs to the time the drug possession statute was enacted, decades ago.  But, Judge Rogers believes the impact of that decision on King County’s civil dockets has been overstated:

“I see very little effect on civil. I really think that the Blake decision has been overblown in the effect on day-to-day trials. It’s a ton of work, a huge amount of work, but a lot of the work is going to be done in two specific areas. Most of the cases – thousands of the cases – will be vacated by agreement and that’s – I would guess 95% of the cases.”  

A second group of cases involves incarcerated persons who need to be resentenced because a point is eliminated from their record.  Judge Rogers noted this group of cases will be limited because of the non-prosecution of possession cases by the Prosecutor’s Office over the last three to four years.  Of course, complications can arise where an individual is involved in a more serious offense, such as a serious assault case, but Judge Rogers anticipates these matters will only take time out of a judge’s non-trial day and, therefore, will not impact civil trials.

The manner by which the Superior Court, the bar, and litigants proceed in the wake of the pandemic will be interesting to follow. Judge Rogers noted the pandemic has led to creativity and innovation in and around the Court and speculated that the use of virtual technology will continue to be a facet of the practice of law, which may drive down prices for litigants, and increase accessibility to the courtroom.

1King County’s courts are ‘barely keeping up’ with a massive backlog of cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sara Jean Green, Seattle Times, July 11, 2021 (available at https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/king-countys-courts-are-barely-keeping-up-with-a-massive-backlog-of-cases-due-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/).