Opinion

Don’t forget about the municipal court | GUEST OPINION

In talking with residents about various programs and services provided by city government in Marysville, you’re more likely to hear about the work of the Legislative branch (City Council) that passes laws and appropriates spending, and the Executive branch (Mayor and Administration) that is responsible for city services and enforcing the laws.

What you hear about less often is our Judicial branch of government that interprets laws, representing the third corner of our system of government at the federal, state and local level more commonly known as separation of powers, as framed in the U.S. Constitution.

In this column, I want to give you a glimpse into the bustling Marysville Municipal Court system. Our court system has come a long ways since the days when part-time Justice of the Peace Don Beaman held court in a small meeting room, caseloads were less than a quarter of what they are today, and it was against the law to hitch your horse to a post in the downtown business district.

Today’s Municipal Court at 1015 State Ave. opened in 2007. The court is fortunate to be presided over by two high-caliber judges who hear cases from the bench not only for our jurisdiction, but for the cities of Arlington and Lake Stevens as well. Judges Fred Gillings and Lorrie Towers are dedicated to administering justice in a fair, efficient and timely manner. They are supported by an administrative and clerical staff  led by Court Administrator Suzanne Elsner, as well as a Probation Officer and two Custody Officers onsite who administer the Alternatives to Sentencing program for low-risk offenders.

As a court of limited jurisdiction in Washington State, Marysville’s court only has jurisdiction over gross misdemeanors, misdemeanors and infractions. The court can also issue domestic violence protection orders and no-contact orders, and anti-harassment orders if established by local court rule. Contrary to what some think, the court does not hear civil or small claims cases — you have to go to a county-level court to file them.

Marysville’s court has more than enough activity, with caseloads on the rise. The court saw a 9 percent increase in total filings in 2011 to 11,087, compared with 10,263 filings in 2010. Marysville cases accounted for about 70 percent of all filings, with Lake Stevens 18 percent and Arlington 12 percent respectively.

When court dockets are busy, that means a heavy caseload for our City Prosecutors, too. Last year, two prosecutors processed 3,289 misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases. The court held 3,159 arraignments, 3,237 infractions and 11 jury trials.

The Court in 2011 began conducting video hearings between the Court and city Jail for custody calendars, and very soon will be able to do the same with the Snohomish County Jail. Video arraignment enhances the safety of courtroom personnel, the public and transporting officers while reducing the cost of transportation.

The Municipal Court also houses a Probation Officer that administers programs that provide pre-sentence investigations, supervision and probationary treatment for misdemeanant offenders. The officer can also make sentencing recommendations to the court, including appropriate treatment (i.e., drug and alcohol counseling) that an offender should receive, or alternatives to sentencing options such as Electronic Home Monitoring. Impressively, our Probation Officer carries an average load of 179 cases a month. In 2011, the court held more than 2,000 hearings for out-of-compliance cases.

In today’s pressure-cooker world of job and home obligations, one area that Marysville’s municipal court struggles with, as do many courts, is drawing large enough jury pools from the summons’ sent out to voters to empanel the six-member juries necessary for a pending trial. That’s unfortunate. Jury duty is an important feature of civic participation in our democracy, a citizen’s chance to speak for the community, deliberate and make fair decisions in a judicial system that couldn’t function without it.

Dodging jury duty or ignoring a summons can have real consequences for court operations, and the individual summoned.

As Judge Gillings says, surveys have consistently found that people believe strongly that jury duty should be fulfilled, even if inconvenient, and that people who go in with low expectations about the process are pleasantly surprised and appreciative when their duty is done.

If you want to learn more about the court, we invite you to join our upcoming free Marysville University class, “Law & Order: An Insider’s Look at the Marysville’s Criminal Justice System” from 6:30-9 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at the Municipal Court. The evening will end with an optional tour of the courthouse. To reserve your seat, call Executive Asst. Lynn Schroeder in City Hall at (360) 363-8091 or email lschroeder@marysvillewa.gov.

For people who are curious to see the judicial process in action, hearings are open to the public, and interested people and community groups are always welcome to come and watch a trial in action.

Mayor Jon Nehring can be reached at mayor@marysvillewa.gov or 360-363-8091.

 

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