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Increase in caseload spurs growth of Marysville court

Marysville Municipa Court case load chart. - Graphic by FRAN HARTNETT
Marysville Municipa Court case load chart.
— image credit: Graphic by FRAN HARTNETT

MARYSVILLE — According to court records, the city’s municipal court handled 4,371 cases in 2000.

By 2007, that number had almost tripled to 11,988. As of July of this year, the court had seen 7,805 cases, with projections putting the final numbers for 2008 at roughly 13,600.

“We have a lot of cases that come through the court,” said Marysville Municipal Court Judge Fred Gillings, whose presence in the courtroom is actually one sign of the changes within the court.

“Part of our challenge is keeping up with the caseload,” Gillings added.

Thanks to agreements inked in 1999 and 2001 respectively, the court now serves not only Marysville, but also Lake Stevens and Arlington. And while the majority of the cases reaching the court still come from Marysville, the court has gone through some growing pains while striving to meet the needs of all three communities.

Perhaps most importantly, according to Court Administrator Suzanne Elsner, the court moved its operations last year from Marysville City Hall to its own building a few blocks south on State Avenue.

“Our needs are just met better in this building,” Elsner said.

Instead of holding hearings in City Council chambers, the court now operates two courtrooms in the new building. Elsner said the move and extra space further allowed the court to increase its administrative staffing. Another programming specialist is due to arrive in October.

To some extent, the court’s new personnel includes Gillings, who became Marysville’s first full-time municipal judge in June of this year. He’d been hearing cases on a part-time basis since 2004.

In addition to bringing on Gillings full time, the court also plans to hire Marysville’s first city prosecutor sometime this year. City Council approved the move in July, but no timeline for the hiring has been made public. For now, as it has in the past, the city farms out prosecutorial duties to the office of City Attorney Grant Weed.

Both Gillings and Elsner said they gladly will open the door for a permanent prosecutor.

“I think it’s really going to help the court,” Gillings said. “We’ll be able to get cases managed in a very timely manner.”

The attorney who usually handles Marysville prosecutions currently also works in two other court systems, which Elsner said obviously limits his availability.

“Our calendars really accommodate the prosecutor,” she added.

The court holds hearings two or three days a week. A part-time commissioner operates the second courtroom while Gillings holds forth in the other. In addition to the traditional courtroom dockets, Gillings also holds in-custody hearings daily, dealing with about 20 cases in each session.

As the name “in-custody” implies, the hearings involve suspects being held by police in the city jail. Elsner said the hearings can actually end a case, with the judge imposing sentencing and fines. He also can set bail if a final disposition can’t be reached.

In terms of its case-load, the Marysville court handles misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors, but cases can involve everything from routine parking or driving infractions to shoplifting or misdemeanor assaults. Elsner noted the court is starting to see infractions based on the state’s new hands-free cell phone rules. The court is set up to handle jury trials, but Gillings said there were only three held last year and only one so far this year.

Various minor infractions make up by far the largest number of the court’s cases, hitting 4,198 by July of this year. Again through July, other more serious cases have included 1,153 non-traffic criminal cases, which consist of such things as thefts and assaults. DUI cases have totaled 229.

Of the total cases heard so far this year, 4,341 have come from Marysville. Lake Stevens has contributed 1,960 cases; Arlington, 1,504.

Elsner said the two other communities joined the Marysville court both as a cost-saving measure and to have access to the city’s jail space. In July, the court increased the per-case amount it charges the client cities. But according to Elsner, those increased fees still don’t quite match the court’s expenses in handling cases from the two other communities.

“It gets you a little bit closer to actual costs, but still not quite there,” she said.

The court’s total budget for 2008 sits at $1.7 million, about a 3.1 percent increase over 2007.

For Gillings, the future includes running in Marysville’s first municipal judicial race in 2009. He’ll be trying to win a four-year term starting in 2010. He said he’s actually looking forward to running his first election campaign.

“You have to get excited about it,” Gillings said.

With all the changes, both Elsner and Gillings feel the court is, or soon will be, ready to handle any future challenges. That includes the inevitable increase in cases that would arrive if the city moves forward with the long talked about annexation of its urban growth area.

“The mayor and the Council stepped up and got us a nice building with plenty of capacity,” Gillings said.

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