Senate OKs adding 2 judges to Benton County court

OLYMPIA — The state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill adding two judges to Benton County’s District Court.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, to allow the county to replace its two District Court commissioners with judges because judges can hear more kinds of cases.

A companion bill introduced by Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, was approved in the House Judiciary Committee last week but hasn’t made it to the House floor.

Klippert said the bill would not add any employees to the county — so costs would be minimal — and the county would get more money back from the state’s Trial Court Improvement Fund.

All counties pay into the fund and money then is distributed back to the counties based on the number of judges they have, Klippert said. The money has been used in Benton County to buy jury management software, hearing impaired units and digital recording systems for courtrooms, and office equipment for court staff.

According to data from the court clerk, Benton County received $76,887, or $25,629 for each of its three judges, from the fund last year.

If it had five judges, the county would have received an additional $46,474 for trial court improvements. But it would only have paid out an additional $29,096 to have two more judges instead of two court commissioners — the difference in salaries for judges versus commissioners.

So the county would have netted an extra $22,262 for improvements plus the benefit of having judges who can hear more kinds of cases than court commissioners.

“This change results in a more equitable distribution of the money collected by and from Benton County,” District Court Judge Holly Hollenbeck said in a Jan. 13 letter supporting the bill.

Klippert said another benefit to Benton County voters is the ability to elect judges. Court commissioners are appointed.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joked in the Senate on Wednesday that shenanigans by Benton County residents prompted the bill.

“This is for the good citizens of Benton County, who apparently due to their behavior need some more District Court judges over there,” Kline said.

That prompted Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who also is Senate president, to ask bill co-sponsor Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, if he was “behaving.”“I’m behaving, Mr. President,” Delvin said.

Delvin suggested the bill would help make the county court more efficient, saying it sometimes struggles to find judges to hear cases.

“And we’re good people in Benton County, I want to throw that in,” Delvin said.