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CA article quotes PLN editor Paul Wright re cutting prison programs

Daily Journal, Jan. 1, 2001.
CA article quotes PLN editor Paul Wright re cutting prison programs - Daily Journal 2001

JANUARY 15, 2001

Court Reform, Legal Services Top Bar Association's Requests

By Lynn Thompson

Washington Journal Staff Writer

Court reform and funding for legal services will be two of the proposals competing for scarce state resources as the Legislature opens its new session this month.

The Washington State Bar Association is asking the Legislature to increase funding for legal services from $10 million to $13 million for the biennium.

Judges are seeking increases in payments to jurors as well as support for a constitutional amendment to increase the power of presiding judges across the state.

The Washington State Trial Lawyers Association also is bringing a number of proposals before the Legislature, including one that would change the state's wrongful death laws to include adult children, an insurance bad faith bill and a bill to encourage insurance companies to accept arbitration determinations.

But getting any measures through the Legislature this year will be tough, according to John Fattorini, the lobbyist for the State Bar Association.

Voter-approved spending limits and tax cuts coupled with recently passed initiatives directing the Legislature to increase funding for public education means that any proposals which have a price tag will face stiff competition.

Further frustrating efforts to pass new measures is the political makeup of the Legislature, which is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats, who traditionally favor social programs such as legal services, hold only a one-vote margin in the Senate. In the House, which is split 50-50, one member from each party will co-chair the committees.

"Getting 60 votes for a constitutional amendment through there?" Fattorini asked. "Good luck."

The State Bar Association has made protection of legal services funding its top priority in the upcoming legislative session. Bar President Jan Eric Peterson dedicated his January president's column to the issue, arguing that the need for legal services in the state far outstrips the level of funding.

"An estimated 1.2 million poor and vulnerable people in our state lack the resources or ability to resolve civil legal problems," Peterson wrote.

He said the legal services system in the state meets only 20 percent of the need in Washington. For a democracy to meet its fundamental obligation to provide justice for all, Peterson said, legal services "must be funded accordingly."

The legal community also may be affected by Gov. Gary Locke's proposed
budget. The Department of Corrections, responding to Locke's request to cut 6 percent from its spending, is proposing to eliminate prison libraries.

Paul Wright, an inmate at MacNeil Island who edits Prison Legal News, said Corrections is "deliberately targeting popular programs" to avoid cutting into its own "bloated bureaucracy."

Wright pointed to federal Bureau of Justice statistics that show that
Washington state has a higher staff-to-inmate ratio than every state except Maine, Vermont, Minnesota and New Mexico.

But Eldon Vail, Corrections' deputy director , said the department "couldn't save money by nibbling around the edges."

He said the decision to eliminate prison libraries is consistent with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lewis v. Casey, which held that prisons need provide inmates with access to court forms, not libraries.

"It doesn't end prisoners' right to litigate, but it does mean taxpayers won't be buying as many law books," Vail said.

Pat Arthur, the institutions project director for Columbia Legal Services, said eliminating prison libraries is "a frontal attack to inmates having any access to the courts."

Arthur said that inmates have serious grievances and that, if prisons take away their ability to address those grievances, "they will vent their frustrations in other ways."

Among the court-reform proposals which the Legislature will consider, the most controversial is one to increase the authority of presiding judges. The State Bar Association is negotiating with the Office for the Administration of the Courts over the proposal to allow presiding judges to appoint elected pro tem judges to hear cases without the consent of the parties.

The courts would like to address the backlog in some counties' civil
calendars, as well as have a tool to respond to sudden caseload surges, according to Mary McQueen, the administrator for the courts. The state Constitution allows the appointment of pro tem judges only with the consent of parties.

Although the courts' proposal calls only for the appointment of elected judges, many lawyers are concerned about the potential for inexperienced judges to be assigned to cases.

Maria Diamond, president of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, said she doesn't want "a municipal court judge to decide a complex product liability case."

She said the trial lawyers also question the proposed use of retired judges as judges pro tem.

"What are the circumstances of the retirement?" Diamond asked. "Is this someone who's keeping up on the law?"

Diamond said the trial lawyers think the proposal is "taking the
constitutional rights of voters [to elect judges] and putting them in the hands of presiding judges."

But McQueen said presiding judges would be unlikely to appoint inexperienced judges. She said the plan has been implemented successfully in Phoenix, where pro tems often handle motions calendars, freeing up experienced judges for trials.

"Right now, civil trials are getting bumped because of the criminal
calendar," McQueen said. "We need a flexible tool."

McQueen is finding more support for another proposal that would increase the statutory payment to jurors from $10 a day to $45, after the first day of service.

Studies have shown that fewer than 20 percent of people across the state respond to juror summons. A committee of lawyers, citizens and court officials in August made recommendations to increase that response rate. The Legislature will be asked to enact some of these reforms, including increasing payment and reducing the amount of time required for jurors to serve.

The State Bar supports the proposals, but the trial lawyers group argues they don't go far enough. The $10-per-day payment hasn't been increased since 1959, the trial lawyers maintain.

The priority legislation for the trial lawyers in this session is one to allow for an offer of compromise after appeal of an arbitration award to superior court. Association lobbyist Sue Evans said that some insurance companies are appealing arbitration awards, delaying the payment of legitimate medical expenses and other damage awards for up to five years.

The trial lawyers and the State Bar also hope to persuade the Legislature to include adult children under the state's wrongful death laws. A surviving parent or sibling has no cause of action for the wrongful death of a single, adult child.

Last year, an 18-year-old was killed when a natural gas pipeline exploded in Bellingham. Because of state laws, the parents could not sue the owners of the pipeline, though if their son had been injured, they would have had a cause of action.

"Parents don't stop loving their kids when they reach 18," Evans said. "It's time Washington law recognized the lifelong bonds of these relationships."