PASCO -- Pasco officials oppose a state courts proposal to require all municipal court judges to run for election.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and the state Board for Judicial Administration hope state legislators will approve the change during the 2011 legislative session that starts in January.
Pasco is the second-largest city in the state to have an appointed part-time municipal court judge. It's among almost 100 cities and towns in the state that have an appointed judge.
This will be the third attempt to get the Legislature to require all municipal court judges to run for election. State law already requires the election of full-time municipal court judges.
City Manager Gary Crutchfield said he believes having an appointed municipal court judge makes the administration of the court more efficient. Going to an elected judge position could increase overall operation costs, he said.
Pasco Municipal Court Judge Mary Ramirez has held her position for more than 20 years and works 32 hours a week. State law defines a full-time judge as one who works 35 hours or more.
Pasco's court efficiently handles a large caseload with its current staff, Crutchfield said, which benefits the city's taxpayers.
Pasco Municipal Court handled 8,610 cases between January and October, according to the Washington Courts website.
Crutchfield said another advantage to an appointed judge is if there are issues with an appointed judge the city council can address them immediately.
With an elected judge, that has to wait until the next election.
State Courts Administrator Jeff Hall said the issue boils down to concern over who should have the decision to retain a municipal court judge -- city officials or voters.
The executive or legislative branch of a city has the hiring and firing power when a judge is appointed, said Hall, a former court administrator for Benton-Franklin Superior Court.
He said that's been an issue in some cities where elected officials have pressured an appointed judge.
Hall said a judge may feel his or her job is threatened if he or she doesn't do what is asked, which threatens the independence of the court, while an elected judge can be more independent.
But Crutchfield said he hasn't seen any evidence of the appointed judge's independence being affected.
He said the city doesn't tell the judge how to make decisions.
Even elected judges could have their independence influenced by an upcoming election, Crutchfield pointed out. And appointment seems to work just fine with the federal courts, he said.
The Association of Washington Cities opposes changing part-time judges to mandatory elected positions.
It has argued appointed judges are more cost-effective and provide a flexible option for cities.
Crutchfield said he opposed changing full-time municipal court judges to elected positions when that change was made a decade ago.
Omitting part-time judges from the election requirement was a compromise.
At some point, Pasco will need to have a full-time judge, Crutchfield said, and an election then will be required.
Hall said the state's estimate of judicial needs already puts Pasco at needing at least a full-time judge.
Crutchfield said he feels the proposal is part of a state move to encourage municipal courts to join district courts because it would give the state fewer courts to manage.
Cities that have their municipal court handled by a district court have found it to eventually be more costly than if they had stayed separate, Crutchfield said. That's why Pasco operates its own court.
Pasco doesn't make money on municipal court, Crutchfield said.
In fact, the court costs Pasco about $200,000 more a year than it brings in.
Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser have their municipal court cases heard in Benton County District Court.