Judge Halts Probe Into Bellingham Municipal Court Conditions

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — A county judge in Washington state has granted a temporary injunction in a civil lawsuit that stops the city of Bellingham from investigating working conditions at the Bellingham Municipal Court.

Skagit County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Yost Neidzwski said Friday that Bellingham Municipal Court Presiding Judge Debra Lev met the burden for enacting a temporary injunction, The Bellingham Herald reported.

Lev filed a lawsuit a week earlier against the city and Mayor Seth Fleetwood, claiming a city investigation into court working conditions violates the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Whatcom County Superior Court, was moved to Skagit County last week after attorneys were notified that all of the Whatcom County judges had endorsed Lev in her upcoming reelection campaign.

Multiple court employees represented by a union walked off the job the same week, alleging intolerable working conditions. As a result, the city’s municipal court was closed through last Tuesday.

In the lawsuit, Aaron Orheim, one of Lev’s attorneys, argued that a city ordinance in Bellingham and the state Supreme Court regulations say that the presiding judge has general administrative supervision over judicial branch employees when it comes to working conditions, hiring, discipline and termination. The state Supreme Court rule also prohibits the delegation of the powers of presiding judges to others in the legislative or executive branch.

James Erb, a senior assistant Bellingham city attorney, said the case was not about the separation of powers of government but was about misconduct and mismanagement at the courthouse. Erb said the relief requested in the case would result in immunity from consequences for favored court management employees to continue committing misconduct.

Orheim argued the city was treating the accusations as if they were already proven to be true, and said the case was about who has the authority to deal with the employees’ concerns.

Erb said the authority should ultimately end with the mayor and the city because, Lev is alleged to be one of the people violating the employees’ rights.

Neidzwski sided with Lev and said the court does have the authority and responsibility for supervising, disciplining and maintaining the workplace environment.

She also said the city violated the right to separation of powers between the three branches of government by placing two court employees on paid administrative leave and threating employees who didn't comply with the city investigation.

The injunction is temporary, officials said. The case will continue to be litigated.

“We are gratified that the court vindicated the rights of the Bellingham Municipal Court as a separate branch of city government. That decision is supported by well-established constitutional law in Washington. The mystery here is why the mayor and the city attorney are so oblivious to such basic separation of powers principles,” said Philip Talmadge, one of Lev’s attorneys.

Fleetwood said the city’s position from the beginning has remained the same.

“Our concern is for the employees. We are duty-bound by state and local laws and union agreements to investigate employee complaints about working conditions,” Fleetwood said, noting that his only goal was to take corrective action if the investigation proves that the employees' complaints have merit.