Judge Debra Lev is completely in the right in the current controversy. The Mayor and the City Attorney are completely off base.
Separation of powers is a fundamental and vital principle. It is what distinguishes America from autocracies. It is what prevented President Trump from coercing judges to rule in his favor. And it must now override City Hall’s attempt to control the operation of Bellingham Municipal Court.
No defendant can be confident of fair treatment in court if the judge is subservient to the prosecutor. This is just as true at the city level as it is in federal, state and county government. Judge Lev hears and decides cases prosecuted by the City Attorney. She must feel free to rule against the City when the City does not have the law on its side. Judge Lev’s ability to rule impartially is threatened if City Hall can tell her how to conduct daily operations and who to hire and fire. That is why State law gives a presiding judge such as Judge Lev unambiguous and non-delegable authority over the working conditions of court personnel. It would be unthinkable for the Governor to lock the Supreme Court’s staff out of the Temple of Justice in Olympia or compel them to cooperate with an investigation. It is hard to understand why any competent lawyer would believe the law is different in Bellingham.
City Hall officials overstepped their executive branch authority by conducting an investigation into the grievances of court employees. It is outrageous that the city officials are now publicizing the report of their one-sided “investigation” after a Skagit County Superior Court Judge granted an injunction effectively directing them to cease and desist.
Other entities exist that can review and address employee grievances. There is no legitimate reason for the Mayor or the City Attorney to take on this role. Contrary to the Mayor’s public statements, the court is not a department under the Mayor’s control and Judge Lev is not a subordinate employee.
We all have reason to be grateful for the independence of America’s courts. We should be grateful to Judge Lev for upholding that principle in Bellingham.
Mary Kay Becker, Bellingham