Our Courts and Local Judiciary

By Hon. Judge Marilyn Haan - Superior Court Judge for Cowlitz County

Originally published by the Daily News.

When I flip on the television, I frequently find shows about the justice system. During the news we hear about the latest trial that has caught the attention of the media.
Although there is a draw to these courtroom events few people really know or understand much about the legal system, or more particularly the court. Many people think that is a good thing, because they have not been required to go to court. The reality is that each day decisions are being made by judges here, and across the nation, that directly impact our lives.

Before we consider how courts impact our lives, let us do an overview of the judiciary. We have three branches of government: The executive, legislative, and judiciary. We have a system of checks and balances. The Founders set up our government so that each branch has another watching over it to make sure each was doing what was legally required of them. On the national level the President is the executive, Congress the legislative and the U.S. District, Appellate, and Supreme Courts, the judiciary. On the state level the Governor is the executive, Representatives and Senators the legislature, and state judges are the judiciary. On the county level the County Commissioners are the executive and legislative, and the Superior Court is the judiciary. Why did I not include the District or Municipal courts?

The judiciary is comprised of the federal level and the state level. The state level includes the state Superior courts, Courts of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. Although Cowlitz County Superior Court is a state court, it is the judiciary branch at the County level. Below the Superior Court are the District and Municipal courts. The District and Municipal courts are parts of the judiciary, but by law, they fall under the authority of its governing body: the Commissioners for District Courts and the city councils for Municipal courts. [Note: In Cowlitz County the cities contract with the County for District Court judges to handle their cases.]

Since the Superior Court is a state court, Superior Court judges are state employees (paid half by the State and half by the County, with benefits provided by the State). District Court judges however are county employees, paid by the County, and they fall under the authority of the County Commissioners. By state law the District Court judges can serve as pro tem judges in Superior Court. (Pro tem judge means in Latin, “for the time being,” or usually for a short time – one day or a few days when a judge may be at a conference, ill, on vacation, or for extra coverage.) Recently you may have seen the Superior and District Court judges work together to relieve the heavy workload in Superior Court by having District Court judges do some of the Superior Court cases.

Superior Court hears two general types of cases, civil and criminal. Civil cases may include divorces, adoptions, and larger personal injury cases. Criminal cases include all felonies, such as murder, robbery, child molestation, and possession of illegal drugs. In addition, all juvenile cases are heard in Superior Court. Why should people care about the courts? Each day major decisions are made by judges that directly or indirectly impact our lives, the lives of our families, children, co-workers, and fellow citizens. To name a few: cases regarding traffic safety cameras, the legality of privatization of liquor stores, countless cases where sentences are imposed on criminals that impact our safety, and cases where a child is placed outside the home in a dependency action because of child abuse and neglect.

As judges we understand the importance of each decision made by us. It is also important for the public to understand what goes on in their courts. All court proceedings are open to the public, with rare exception. We invite you to come and see the courts in action.

The judges will be providing three more articles about the judiciary over the next three weeks. We ask you to learn more about our courts. If you would like more information about our legal system, please see the state court website at http://www.courts.wa.gov or the Superior Court of Washington for Cowlitz County website at http://cowlitzsuperiorcourt.us, which includes a video about misperceptions about the court at http://cowlitzsuperiorcourt.us/index.php/courtnews/myths-and-misperceptions-
about-the-washington-courts.