The six judges on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench should have a new colleague by October.
Nearly four years after court officials started the process to get a seventh judicial position, applications are being accepted for the appointment.
The new judge will be selected by Gov. Jay Inslee and face election in 2016 to retain the seat.
Superior Court Administrator Pat Austin said officials are excited to finally get the position filled.
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“We look forward to a new member on the bench,” she said.
The last time a new judge was added in the bicounty judicial district was 2003, when then-Gov. Gary Locke appointed Carrie Runge.
Growth in the two counties has created the need for an additional judge because of a larger and more complex caseload.
Superior Court judges handle civil and felony criminal cases, divorces, and paternity and custody issues.
The judges and court administration got the support of commissioners in Benton and Franklin counties. Then in 2013, the state Legislature approved the seventh judgeship, and Inslee signed the bill.
However, it took a couple of years for the counties to budget for the position. The state pays half of the judge’s salary and all benefits. The other half is divided between Benton and Franklin based on a formula for that year’s assessed property values.
Franklin County commissioners agreed in late June to pay their share for the last few months of 2015 and all of 2016.
Benton County’s funding was included in the 0.3 percent public safety sales tax that passed in 2014, and in July the commissioners made the final necessary approval.
The salary for Superior Court judges goes up Sept. 1 to $162,618 per year.
Austin recognized that it took some time for all three government entities — the state and the two counties — to secure the money because court officials tried to add the judgeship during a hard economic time.
The administration has not asked for extra money to hire support staff. Instead, bailiffs will be moved from other courtrooms as needed and court stenographers, who used to be assigned to a judge, have recently gone to more of a pool system, she said.
Austin said that depending on the vetting process, the court is tentatively hoping for an Oct. 1 swearing-in date. However, that will depend on the new judge and whether additional time is needed to close down their practice.
Nicholas Brown, Inslee’s general counsel, said applications must be completed and submitted by Aug. 17. He was not sure if the office had received any applications yet, but said the names of candidates won’t be released until after the deadline.
Brown will head to the Tri-Cities in early September to conduct interviews. Then, depending on Inslee’s schedule, the top finalist will meet with the governor in Olympia.
“I usually interview everyone who at least has newly applied. But because we have done two previous ones, I may not necessarily interview folks who have previously applied,” he said, adding that he won’t know for sure until he sees the applicants.
Sal Mendoza Jr. was appointed by Inslee in April 2013 to replace the vacancy left by Judge Craig Matheson’s retirement. Then, after Mendoza moved to the federal bench, Alex Ekstrom was appointed in September 2014 to fill his spot.
This coming week, Inslee will make his 42nd judicial appointment since he came into office 21/2 years ago. The vast majority of them have been retirements.
In comparison, Gov. Chris Gregoire made 65 judicial appointments in her eight years, Brown said.
For more information on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court vacancy, go to http://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/VacancyBentonFranklinCountyCourtJuly2015.pdf.