“What I observed is something I might expect from some former Soviet country.”

In my December Blog, I described how a Somali woman and her advocate were forced to stand in six lines in order to start a dissolution (divorce action) because she was poor. I described a series of user fees imposed on those who want access to family court, how the Somali advocate explained to me how she needed to get the King County Clerk’s permission before seeing a judge, and how the King County Courthouse has become a comedy of tears for many. Frankly, what I observed is something I might expect from some former Soviet country but not the USA and certainly not Washington State. You may read that blog entry below.

In response, I received two letters from King County judges. These judges are personal friends and people I admire greatly for the tireless and near heroic work they have done to improve and work for adequate funding for the courts and the people the courts serve. Because of their dedication to the improvement of the administration of justice, I expected them to thank me for putting a spotlight on the current bureaucratic mess at the King County Courthouse and how the system impacts the poor, to acknowledge that the King County fees create barriers to access, to pledge to work to eliminate the fees and the mess and to find alternate funding for these vital programs. Although they both indicated they would work on making the system more user friendly, they both argued the benefits of the programs funded by the fees and defended them as a means to justify an end. These fees are viewed by these judges as a lesser of evils.

I respect these judges and their views. But I have a very different perspective. I have never doubted for a moment that these programs are vital and deserve to be funded; nor have I suggested otherwise. That said, I think the leadership of King County may have lost vision. I fear the architects and supporters of the fees are focused only on the King County Courthouse and have lost sight of the big picture. They and I view the same facts through different lenses. I think they are looking through a macro lens seeing only the King County Courthouse. The larger battle waged across this great country has been to increase access to justice. From the American Bar Association down to all level of state courts organizations, efforts have focused on greater access and fewer barriers. User fees are barriers to access, especially when, as I observed, poor people must stand in six lines and those who can afford a lawyer stand in none.

This whole situation reminds me of the movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai. In the movie, the commander of prisoners of war became so focused on the welfare and survival of his men that he helped the enemy build a bridge. He was an honorable and dedicated man but he was so focused on his job of keeping his men alive that he lost sight to the big picture—the war effort. I have devoted much of my career pursuing equal justice for all. In my view, speaking not legally but politically, these fees are very repressive, regressive, and are antithetical to the concepts of open courts “and justice for all” to which we have all pledged. These mandatory fees to obtain access to courts are a huge step backward for the cause of justice.

No one envies those who must make the difficult budget cuts in today’s recession. But we must never lose sight of the big picture. In order to pay for programs, King County has adopted a series of fees for mandatory services not charged in other counties. If these fees catch on, as I fear they might, it will be the worst thing to happen to the administration of justice in the 40 years I have been a lawyer.

The best of intentions and the need to fund good programs have often given birth to bad ideas. During the late 1800s, contract prison labor met a supposedly urgent need for farm and plantation labor while providing funds needed to feed and house the convict population. Similarly, poll taxes not only produced revenue for such laudable programs as voter education but poll taxes, supporters claimed, also prevented total political chaos when a new and largely unschooled group became eligible to vote. During a previous depression in the 1930s, courts became increasingly dependent upon court costs, including court costs imposed in acquittals and dismissed criminal cases. These court costs were an important source of revenue to pay for court budgets.

They say history has a habit of repeating itself.

Convict contract labor, poll taxes, and court costs for dismissed criminal cases were like King County’s fees in that they were born of a need created by a crisis, maintained the status quo and existing programs, for which good reasons were advanced, and supported by good people with good intentions. But they are all viewed badly by history. I believe that the King County fees will be similarly judged by history. The King County bench is a noble group of jurists who have dedicated their lives to justice. The King County bench needs our help. The programs in question are vital to the people they serve. These fees must be eliminated and other funding sources found for the programs. Requiring the Clerk’s permission to see an ex parte judge must be eliminated. The bureaucratic bottleneck must be cleared and a one-stop system reestablished.

Because times are very difficult it is all the more important that the entire legal community, the King County Council, and every group and person who believes in the concept of equal justice all join together.