Judge David Grant told us two months ago he was resigning a year early, on June 30. Unfortunately, our County Council still does not have a plan for appointing his replacement on our District Court. Instead, council members are all maneuvering behind the scenes to secure the outcome they want. Bottom line is, we may not have a replacement until September, or November.
Here is a brief on the situation. We elect our two Whatcom County District Court judges to four year terms. In late May, one of those two judges, David Grant, issued a letter that he was resigning effective June 30. He retired with over a year left on his four year term. When a judge resigns, law allows the County Council to appoint a temporary replacement to fill out the elected term. Then at the next general election - Nov 2022 for Judge Grant's term - there will be a regular election for the next judge. Naturally, the appointee is allowed to run in that election.
Meanwhile, we have only one judge in District Court, which is causing jury trials to be delayed. This week, there were 20 jury cases assigned to District Courts and only one lone judge; it’s an impossible load. Add to this the city of Bellingham trying to cripple its Municipal Court and transfer all city cases to… yep, the county’s District Court.
In this separate but further complicating issue, Bellingham’s Mayor Seth Fleetwood has intentionally picked a legal fight with the city’s Municipal Court, claiming “problems” in the court’s administration. Then, City Council voted to begin the process of dismantling our Municipal Court and paying the county to handle all city court cases. The last time the city tried that was the 1990s; the costs of paying the county were so huge that we ended up creating our own Municipal Court. Yes, deja vu.
According to the state, based on our population we could have a third District Court judge, but County Council does not want to pay for one. So meanwhile, we slide into a dysfunctional court system as our city and county judicial apparatus breaks down. We presently need one Municipal Court and three county District Court. Instead, as Judge Debra Lev fights to re-open her Municipal Court, Whatcom County struggles with just one District Court.
Here we are in the third week of July and Whatcom County Council has not started the process to replace Judge Grant. Council staff plans to present a proposed process and timeline at next week's council meeting. But, as is often the case here, “Wait, there’s more!”
The Council is planning an illegal, closed-door, secret executive meeting for next Tuesday. An executive meeting with a judge, a county clerk and a select citizen in attendance - all illegal participants. They will no doubt get away with it as our County Prosecutor’s office has given them the green light with legal advice. The purpose? Not to discuss the judgeship applicants or whom to appoint - which is permitted in closed session. No. Rather to discuss the “process” for selecting the appointee. Deciding the process is for open meeting and by doing this in executive session the council is further violating the state Open Meetings Act.
Why all the cloak and dagger? What is the super-secret political plan? The plan is to delay the decision until after the Primary Election. Why? So as to not hurt liberal candidates for council. Yep, the plan is to pass over the most qualified judicial candidates and give us a less qualified - but liberal - judge who will spend months just learning the job and will alienate not only conservatives, but folks of even moderate politics as well. Best to keep that quiet.
The Fix Is In. The intention of this majority-liberal council is to get a liberal judge in office early enough that they can run as the incumbent in next year's election. Because everyone knows that 99% of the time, incumbent judges just walk through reelection. But council can’t appoint a liberal judge quite so early as to damage liberal Primary candidates. Dare they hope to delay this judicial appointee long enough to get those candidates through the General Election in November as well?
It’s all politics. And it is causing delays and gumming up our legal system. One person can speed this process up and that is Whatcom County Council President Barry Buchanan. But he won't. He is delaying any plan and timeline for selecting this replacement. Because he, too, is up for reelection and has multiple challengers forcing him into a county-wide Primary just to get to November. He could choose to bring this issue to the council next Tuesday and vote on a replacement. He could have done it in June. You do not need all the fingers on one hand to count the qualified applicants for this position. But the four liberals on our County Council are afraid of voter reaction if they actually appoint their desired liberal and lesser qualified candidate. So we the people suffer, especially those caught in our legal system.
Additionally, all this manipulation by the city and county is expensive. City Hall will run up hundreds of thousands in legal costs on a losing battle with their own Municipal Court. The County Council is wasting everyone’s time pretending to work when they are actually trying to stall the whole process as long as they can.
The Real Fix? Seth Fleetwood can call off his misguided crusade against our Municipal Court and Barry Buchanan can schedule the vote next Tuesday to appoint a temporary District Court judge. All this chaos is simply unnecessary.