Judge backs judges in Franklin County records dispute

Franklin County’s independently elected clerk Michael Killian must follow rules set by the local judiciary. A Kittitas County Superior Court judge ruled against Killian Monday in a long-simmering dispute over electronic records .
Franklin County’s independently elected clerk Michael Killian must follow rules set by the local judiciary. A Kittitas County Superior Court judge ruled against Killian Monday in a long-simmering dispute over electronic records . Tri-City Herald

Franklin County Clerk Michael Killian must obey orders from the Superior Court judges under a ruling by a Superior Court judge in another county.

Kittitas County Judge Scott R. Sparks ruled against Killian in a long-simmering legal brawl with the local judiciary over his move to paperless record keeping earlier this year.

The case turned on whether elected clerks — or elected judges — call the shots on court matters. Sparks sided with the judges.

Sparks said clerks, though independently elected, wear two hats.

In one role, county clerks have discretion to run the nonjudicial sides of their offices, such as processing passport applications, as they see fit.

But when they work for the Superior Court, county clerks must follow the judges orders to maintain the integrity of the state’s judicial system.

“(W)henever the word ‘court’ is mentioned, the authority of the court clerk to take any action derives from the court,” he wrote in an order that followed a trial last week.

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Killian said he was disappointed.

He will meet with Heather Yakely, his taxpayer-funded attorney, and Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant on Tuesday to explore a possible appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court or to petition for a stay of the order.

Michael Killian
Michael Killian TriCities

Killian said he remains mystified about why the judges adamantly reject the move to save money, noting they have “24/7” access to court records from anywhere in the world.

“The federal courts have been paperless for more than 20 years,” he said. “I think it’s just a power play.”

The seven judges of the Benton-Franklin County Superior Court district work in both counties, though each county has its own courthouse, jail and local officers, including clerk. Benton County Clerk Josie Delvin was not involved in the case.

The dispute came to a heard early in the year when Killian announced he would no longer keep paper files.

The state’s Odyssey courts management system had worked flawlessly for several years and Killian characterized paper records as a costly, time-consuming exercise in futility.

His office retains the paper documents submitted by attorneys by date rather than by case. In Odyssey, documents are organized by case, so visitors can review them in a single spot. Judges could request to see the paper documents on any case.

Franklin County court records are available to the public through Odyssey while Benton County records are not.

The judges were not pleased with the move and passed a Local General Rule requiring both clerks to maintain paper files.

When Killian made the paperless move, the judges sued.

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Dale Kamerrer, an Olympia attorney representing the judges, said his clients are committed to electronic records, but aren’t confident the system is ready for real time.

He said electronic records aren’t always accessible in the courthouse, particularly when proceedings are held outside of courtrooms or in chambers, such as in jury rooms.

He said the judges also want the electronic system set up to ensure electronic documents are automatically routed to all interested parties

For instance, if a judge quashes an arrest warrant, the document should go to all associated police agencies and the jail to ensure the subject isn’t mistakenly arrested or booked.

“What they want going forward is to make sure all those processes and procedures are in place and working when they convert to a paperless environment,” Kamerrer said.

The ruling against the Franklin County clerk could have statewide implications for making the clerk an agent of the court.

Kamerrer said Sparks’ ruling reinforces what has already been spelled out in state law and in prior court decisions. But Killian said it gives the bench unlimited power to impose rule.

The courthouse dispute spawned a separate legal battle in the state Supreme Court.

After the Franklin County Commission decided not to pay the judges’ legal bills, the judges appointed Kamerrer to serve as a special deputy prosecutor under the elected prosecutor, Sant.

Sant asked the state’s highest court to review the move, calling it an intrusion into his authority as the elected prosecutor. A trial date is set in early 2019.

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The legal battle heated Killian’s re-election campaign, but in the end, he easily won re-election to a new term over Jacqueline Lopez Giddens, who made the suit one of the centerpieces of her campaign for a change in leadership.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514