City considers terminating Federal Way Municipal Court

Federal Way is evaluating its options for providing court services, and has shown interest in terminating its municipal court.

On May 19, during a city council special session, deputy mayor Eric Faison proposed looking into the city's options for providing court services. Personnel issues have plagued the municipal court since its beginning. The city is obligated to offer court services, but has the ultimate authority in deciding how those services are presented. Staff is now researching the legality and costs associated with discontinuing the court in its current form.

Contracting with King County District Court is one option. But there are still many unknowns at the moment, Faison said.

"How we provide those services is our responsibility," he said.

Federal Way Municipal Court was established in 2000. It is a court of limited jurisdiction, seeing cases concerning civil and traffic infractions, criminal and gross misdemeanors, and civil vehicle impound hearings. The court staff continues to be innovative when it comes to providing justice. Staff recently requested a grant to begin a DUI court, and last year installed new safety equipment, among other things. But since its beginning, the court has faced personnel issues.

"I'm concerned with the ability of Federal Way to have its own court," Faison said.

Weighing the options

The city will look at several options for offering court services. Contracting with King County is one possible avenue. Who provides the services, and where those are provided from, are just some questions that need answers, Faison said.

Municipalities are required, by law, to prosecute misdemeanor offenses that take place within the city's limits, said Michael Morgan, Federal Way Municipal Court presiding judge. When the legislation was enacted, Federal Way weighed providing its own services against contracting with the county and found establishing a municipal court more cost-effective, Morgan said.

"Almost every city, if not every city, in King County that has examined this issue has each reached the same conclusion: That it is substantially less expensive to have your own municipal court than contract out for municipal court services with King County District Court," Morgan said.

The benefits of a district court contract vs. operating a municipal court vary for each city, said Diane Carlson, Bellevue government relations director.

Bellevue, with a population of 118,100, has evaluated the benefits of operating a municipal court, but found a contract with the county more appealing, she said. Service levels as well as cost should be considered when deciding how to offer court services, Carlson said. A facility to house the services impacts how expensive it is for a city to provide is own court services, Carlson said.

"If you have your own facility, it makes it possibly more cost-effective to go to a municipal court (structure)," she said.

Bellevue is part of an inter-local agreement with King County jurisdictions that do not operate their own municipal court. Service charges are based on the number and types of cases tried, Carlson said. Annually, the county looks at how much revenue each city's caseload produced vs. how much it costs to handle the cases when determining how much each municipality will pay for the county service, Carlson said. Bellevue generally breaks even, she said.

"Through our evaluations, the service level has continued to be good," Carlson said.

Criminal cases are typically more expensive to try than misdemeanor cases, Carlson said. In 2008, the King County District Court tried 27,052 cases for Bellevue, according to information found on the Washington State Courts Web page. Most of these cases were traffic related, according to the information. The same year, Federal Way Municipal Court tried 18,602 cases. Most the cases were traffic related. Ten were civil cases, according to the court information.

Troubled past

Faison's concerns originate from a nine-year history of managerial blemishes. The first mark on the Federal Way Municipal Court's record came in 2003. Judge David Tracy was put on paid administrative leave by then-city manager David Moseley. Moseley later changed the judge's leave status to "vacation." Emotional stress was cited.

The state's Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) evaluates complaints against judges and determines if a judge's actions violate the Code of Judicial Conduct. The commission also reprimands judges for their inappropriate actions. It does not reveal complaints unless it concludes the judge in question defied the code of conduct. The commission has no record of investigating Tracy.

In December 2007, the court again took a blow. Its newest authority, Judge Colleen Hartl, suddenly resigned. Hartl began her work in Federal Way in May 2007. In January 2008, it surfaced that Hartl engaged in sexual conduct with a public defender that tried cases before her. The revelation incited turmoil that has yet to cease. In August, the CJC censured Hartl, prohibiting her from serving as a judge without first gaining the CJC's approval.

While awaiting her punishment, Hartl claimed the court's presiding judge, Michael Morgan, managed the court with a harassing and intimidating nature. The city hired an outside investigator to research the claim. Morgan agreed the action was necessary.

Before the investigation known as the "Stephson report" was completed, Morgan demanded the investigation to halt. When the city continued the investigation, Morgan entered into a lawsuit with the city to keep the results of the report out of the public eye. He claims the city violated attorney-client privileges, and that the court does not fall under the city's jurisdiction and was out of line in continuing the investigation.

The CJC reprimanded Morgan this past December for making threatening remarks to court employees, discussing matters of a sexual nature with court staff and swearing at the police chief. In February, a court supervisor who had worked with Morgan during the time proceeding the CJC's ruling filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the city for unlawful termination. The city is legally obligated to represent its judges, though it does not have the power to remove them from office. The mess has left the city's management frustrated.

Public discussion

Faison said he did make his request because of the lawsuits the city faces. The court's history of struggles and the city's need to re-evaluate its budget prompted his actions, Faison said.

"I look forward to a review of court operations to further demonstrate the excellent value the Federal Way Municipal Court provides to the taxpayers," Morgan said.

The city council will hold a public study session on the topic June 16. It will not take public comment. If the court is to be disembodied, it is likely to take place prior to 2010, Faison said. Both Judge Morgan, who was elected to his position beginning 2006, and Judge David Larson, who was appointed to fill Hartl's position through this year, are up for election this year. Neither judge has publicly announced whether he will run for office.

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