2022 Court Legislation Impacting Local Governments
As MRSC begins to wrap-up our blog series on the 2022 Regular Legislative Session, there are a few more bills I’d like to bring to the attention of county, city, and town officials. In this blog, I’ll review three pieces of legislation that impact how local governments interact with their courts.
Single Judge Courts
Many municipal and district courts, and some superior courts, are presided over by a single judge, also known as “single judge courts.” But what happens if that single judge becomes unavailable? There are processes to fill the seat if a permanent vacancy occurs, but the business of the court would come to a standstill until the vacancy is filled. Plus, what happens if the situation is not permanent, i.e., the single judge is only temporarily unable to preside over the court due to illness, incapacity, or for some other reason?
Some courts are proactive and designate a judge pro tempore in advance. But sometimes there is no advance warning, or the pre-designated judge is also unavailable. There may be appointed commissioners who can share some of the caseload, but such persons do not have the same breadth of authority to preside over all aspects of certain cases. See e.g., RCW 2.24.040.
To address this issue and allow for courts to continue to operate until the presiding judge is able to return or the vacancy is permanently filled, the Washington State Legislature adopted HB 1825.
This bill authorizes the chief justice of the state supreme court, in consultation with the local legislative and executive authorities, to appoint a presiding judge pro tempore to serve during the remaining period of unavailability or until the vacancy is filled. The appointed presiding judge pro tempore has all the same authority as the presiding judge would have if they were available.
Name Change Fees
In its continuing effort to ensure equal access to judicial remedies, the legislature adopted HB 1961, which is related to court fees associated with costs to change one's name.
If someone wishes to legally change their name, they must seek a court order and then have that order filled and recorded with the county auditor — each step of which involves fees and charges. HB 1961 addresses the costs incurred by someone seeking to change their name.
People change their name for many reasons, including to shield themselves from domestic abusers. Such persons are often already financially disadvantaged as they attempt to disentangle their affairs. Courts currently have the authority to waive court fees under General Rule 34 for indigent individuals but still must collect auditor’s fees. HB 1961 closes that loophole and directs the court to waive the auditor’s fees unless name change costs were included with victim compensation. Additionally, the bill directs the court to specifically order the auditor to process the name change at no expense to the requestor.
Legal Financial Obligations
Legal financial obligations (LFOs) imposed as part of criminal convictions include everything from victim restitution to costs associated with prosecution, to fines, and other costs and fees. Some of these obligations can be waived if the offender is unable to pay.
Many local governments rely, in part, on LFOs to fund their local court programs. At the same time, outstanding LFOs and the accrued interest can be a barrier to an offender’s reentry into society, especially if the offender is financially unable to pay. For more on Washington’s LFO system, see a recent report from the Washington State Supreme Court Minority and Justice Commission.
HB 1412, effective January 1, 2023, provides more flexibility for courts to not impose certain obligations or to later waive those obligations based on the offender’s inability to pay, and includes a revised standard of indigency. This new flexibility will apply to both existing and future LFOs. The new law also revises the time period in which judgments for non-restitution LFOs can be enforced, which will impact a local government’s ability to pursue these debts.
Efforts to shift local court system funding reliance from LFOs to other state financial sources were ultimately unsuccessful during this past legislative session.
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