Lawyers to Volunteer as Judges to Chip Away at County's 500-Case Backlog

The superior court docket in Yakima County, Wash., is under a crushing backlog, with more than 500 civil cases awaiting trial while judges make criminal cases a priority. So judicial administration authorities there have come up with a way to chip away at the mountain of cases by bringing in volunteer lawyers who will help the county resolve the litigation.

The idea for the part-time, pro bono judge program originated, in part, with Yakima lawyer Richard Bartheld, who grew tired of trial delays. After one delay, the Yakima Herald-Republic reports that Bartheld wrote a letter to a court consultant and volunteered to serve as a part-time judge to help get cases moving.

“Maybe it’s time I be a solution to the problem, rather than a source of the problem,” Bartheld told the paper.

Next month, at least nine attorneys will begin serving as volunteer judges. They’ll use a federal courtroom donated for the effort.

Yakima County, which is southeast of Seattle, currently has eight superior court judges and three court commissioners, though the state Office of the Administrator of Courts calculates that the county could use 13 judges, the Herald-Republic reports.

The Yakima County approach is a new one to Greg Hurley, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. Other jurisdictions have recalled retired judges and used temporary judges for motions hearings.

With court budget cutbacks forcing layoffs and furloughs across the country, the NCSC isn’t likely to be the only one watching to see how the pro bono judge project works out.

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