Most people will never see the inside of a federal courtroom. But local advocates are raising the question, "What if someone needs it, and it isn't there?"
With Richland-based federal Judge Edward Shea switching to senior status -- a sort of semi-retirement that allows him to hear fewer cases -- in June, Tri-City leaders are concerned that his replacement could end up based in Yakima or Spokane.
And that would mean a lot of Mid-Columbians would have no access to legal justice, one Kennewick attorney said.
Alicia Berry, former president of the Benton Franklin County Bar Association, gave the example of a Tri-City family that takes a vacation in Southern California.
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Say they get into a car accident that's someone else's fault and decide to sue to recover the cost of medical bills or lost wages. Since the other driver lives in another state, they can sue in federal court to avoid having to travel to California for a trial, Berry said.
But if the closest federal judge is in Yakima or Spokane, that means travel costs for the family, their attorney and their witnesses -- and some of those costs can't be reimbursed even if the family wins their lawsuit, Berry said.
"It will make the costs so prohibitive that it will limit access to the justice system to only those elite who can afford to pay," Berry said. "That is a huge burden on all of those people in Southeast Washington."
Shea has been a judge for the Eastern District of Washington federal court for about 14 years, and was the first federal judge to be based full-time in Richland.
"Until Judge Shea came on the bench there was no federal court presence here," Berry said. "A lot of people did not have their legal needs met because they could not afford to (travel to) Yakima or Spokane."
Before that -- and going back to 1963, when the Federal Building in Richland opened -- judges from Spokane and later Yakima would travel to Richland to hear cases.
Sometimes they still do when the workload demands it, Shea said.
But as the population in the Tri-Cities has exploded during the past decade or so, the local federal court has seen its caseload grow.
Last year, the Richland court had the same number of criminal cases as the traditionally busier Yakima court, and about a half-dozen more civil cases, Shea told the Herald.
That leads Tri-City advocates to say it's only logical to have Shea's successor sit in Richland.
"I think if there isn't a position here, it places a burden on local law enforcement as well as members of the bar association to travel to Yakima or Spokane to try cases," said Carl Adrian, CEO of the Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC). "The Tri-Cities is a bigger metro area than Yakima and probably deserves to continue having a judge."
Adrian sent a letter this week to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, urging them to "take an active role to ensure that we retain this judgeship position here in Richland."
"Based on recent rumors, ... we in the Tri-Cities have become gravely concerned that this judgeship may end up being reassigned by third parties to either Yakima or Spokane," said the letter.
The federal Eastern District covers all of Washington east of the Cascade Mountains. The district has three courthouses in Spokane, Yakima and Richland.
Spokane has two full-time judges -- known as active judges -- and four senior judges, as well as a magistrate judge.
Yakima has one active judge -- Lonny Suko, who will be eligible to take senior status this fall -- and a magistrate. Richland only has Shea.
Shea said the kinds of cases he handles as a federal court judge tend to be complex and labor intensive -- for example, a recent drug conspiracy case involving 15 defendants and multiple wiretaps, witnesses and documents. Criminal cases tried under federal statutes can be bigger and more far-reaching than cases in state courts at county courthouses.
"The nature of the cases are very different than my colleagues in state court," Shea told the Herald.
That's one of many reasons why Shea and other Tri-Citians believe it's important for his replacement to be based in Richland.
Shea was eligible to take senior status in 2010, but delayed going part time while new senior judge chambers were built at the Richland courthouse. The new chambers opened last March.
"I think most people would agree (the delay) was uncommon," Shea said. "I did it so there would be no question a full chambers would immediately be available for my successor."
With the addition of a senior judge chamber, that gives the Richland courthouse enough space for Shea and his replacement to work.
As a senior judge, Shea said he's paid the same as if he retired altogether, but that taxpayers get the benefit of him continuing to preside over some cases. Senior-status judges must handle at least 50 percent of the average number of cases taken by the other judges in the district.
That helps the active judges juggle the daily demands of being a full-time judge, Shea said.
Kennewick attorney John Schultz told the Herald that even though the position is being advertised as Richland-based, there is some concern in the community that the position could move.
"It is our hope and expectation that the judge will be here," said Schultz, who is on the committee to recommend Shea's replacement. "The Richland area has much more of a federal presence than Yakima. ... From our standpoint, we want that seat here."
Berry said the ripple effect if Richland were to lose its full-time judge would be felt by more than lawyers and federal agencies.
"It's not about the lawyers," she said. "It's about the community. The impact on our lower and middle classes would be just astronomical."
Potential candidates to replace Shea will be evaluated by an eight-person bipartisan committee created by Murray, Cantwell and Hastings.
The committee includes four Democrats -- Nancy Isserlis, Jaime Hawk and Juliana Repp of Spokane, and Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller -- and four Republicans -- Schultz and fellow attorneys James Hayner of Walla Walla, Gregory Beeler of Pasco, and Kennewick Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Brown, who also is a lawyer.
The job listing is posted to the Eastern District of Washington court website, and applications will be accepted until Feb. 24.
Isserlis, who is leading the committee along with Schultz, noted that the job description advertises for a Richland judge.
She said those marching orders came from Murray's office, as the senior of the two U.S. senators.
"My instruction from the senator's office is that it is a Richland appointment," Isserlis said.
Murray's office declined to talk about the appointment or whether the position would stay in Richland.
Once the application period closes, the committee will meet and review candidates and recommend three names to Murray and Cantwell, who then will forward a recommendation to President Obama for a nomination. The Senate must then confirm the nomination.
There's no deadline, but Isserlis said she expects the committee will interview candidates in the spring.