District Court judges agree to pick up the slack resulting from empty seat during budget crisis

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Spokane County's District Court judges are willing to work a little harder, rather than see anyone appointed to replace the recently retired Judge Gregory Tripp. For now, anyway.

A letter signed by all seven remaining district court 
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judges asks the Spokane  County Board of Commissioners to hold off on appointing an eighth judge to fill Tripp's seat. They're hoping that the money saved will count toward the $332,087 they've been asked to cut from the district court's budget.

"This request is not made lightly but would enable us to achieve the budget cuts we are committed to meeting," the letter says. "As you may recall, earlier this year the Administrative Office of the Courts confirmed that our court's workload requires 8 judges (as set by statute). We are aware that by making this request each of our judges must do their assigned work as well as the workload that would have been assigned to the new judge."

The district court handles low-level crimes for Spokane County, as well as Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Millwood, Deer Park, Fairfield, Latah, Rockford and Spangle. Judges, who currently make $161,092, are scheduled for a bump to $164,313 by September 2018.

"I applaud them for this," Commissioner Josh Kerns says. "This is a large undertaking and it is one of those innovative solutions. Good for them."

Kerns says each department in the county will formally present their ideas for budget cuts to the county commissioners on Oct. 16 and 17. Commissioners will have a chance to discuss potential concerns with the shorthanded bench at that time, Kerns says.

"I'd probably just ask if they're sure they can keep up with that workload," he says. "They know better than anybody what they can handle as far as the workload. If they feel comfortable that they can do it, then it's something we'd have to consider. But we want to make sure we won't see a backlog in District Court."

It is unclear from the letter whether the seven judges are suggesting that county commissioners hold off on an appointment altogether, or simply until the court meets its target budget reduction.

District Court Judge Vance Peterson clarifies that "a side effect of the court's budget decision is that it would leave that judicial seat open for filing in 2018, and anyone interested in the job could run for it, which reflects the will of the people."

"It is my hope whether through the reappointment process or by leaving the seat open, as suggested by the District Court judges to meet our budget reductions, our elected officials wisely consider and honor the will of the voters, to which we are accountable," adds District Court Judge Aimee Maurer.

Anyone appointed to the seat would face re-election in 2018. Without an appointment, the seat would remain open until voters filled it.

The letter acknowledges that a seven-judge bench likely is not sustainable, as "studies have shown when judges are overextended long term there is less of an opportunity to engage in practices known to have a benefit in reducing crime in our community."

Presiding District Court Judge Patti Connolly Walker indicates that "the District Court is actively invested in all options as we work with other county partners and the county commissioner in preparation to meet potential 2018 budget cuts."