In an attempt to encourage attorneys to file their paperwork electronically, King County District Court Judge Fa’amomoi Masaniai developed a "house point" system based on the one used in the Harry Potter novels. The system led to an increase in lawyers using the court’s electronic filing system, which pleased former court clerk Masaniai, who wanted to reduce busywork for his clerks. However, much like J.K. Rowling, the system had some problematic elements.
The idea for the point system emerged at the end of September. During a long day of sentencing hearings, attorneys kept handing Masaniai physical paperwork. After about five attorneys handed him paper, Masaniai made an offhand joke to his clerk: “Minus two points to Hufflepuff for using paper."
For those who need a primer on the wizarding world: In the Harry Potter books, witches and wizards go to a school called Hogwarts. At the school, a magical hat sorts the kids into one of four "houses:" Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. Throughout the school year, the professors award kids "house points" for answering questions correctly in class and for slaying evil wizards. At the end of the year, the house with the most points wins bragging rights until the next year.
Each of the houses have stereotypes associated with them. Gryffindors are good and courageous, Slytherins are evil and conniving, Hufflepuffs are sweet but dumb, and Ravenclaws are smart but cold.
After Masaniai made the initial remark to his clerk, he kept sporadically deducting “points” from attorneys in open court when they brought him physical paper, and he encouraged them to file electronically so his clerks didn’t have to scan and upload paperwork to the court system. But then attorneys—held hostage by the millennial urge to associate with specific Harry Potter houses—began self-selecting into the houses they wanted to belong to.
The state prosecutors selected Gryffindor because they said they stood “for courage and honor,” Masaniai said. After two attorneys from two public defender divisions asked to sort themselves into Slytherin and Hufflepuff, the judge sorted private attorneys into Ravenclaw by default. (Not exactly winning strategy for defense attorneys to cast themselves as villains and pushovers while letting the prosecutors get to fill the role of the “good guys.”)
Once the attorneys established their houses, Masaniai started tracking the points using an online form. He gave all the attorney “houses” 25 points and started awarding and deducting points based on who filed motions on paper and who filed them electronically.
By Oct 14, The Stranger started asking the prosecutor’s office about whether they’d heard about the point system. Around the same time, Masaniai said, he recognized that deducting fake points might negatively affect the relationship between lawyers and their clients. While he claims nothing about the point system affected the outcome of cases or a client’s constitutional rights, Masaniai said he didn’t want defendants to assume their attorneys weren’t doing their jobs correctly just because they filed their motions on paper. By Oct 18, he’d ended the program and deleted the tracker.
He said the point system did not affect his court decisions, and he never displayed the tracker publicly. Only he and his clerks had ever seen the tracker form, he emphasized.
The competition ended with the state prosecutors ahead, but only by a few points. The private attorneys finished last. Masaniai said those attorneys have more reasons to bring paper motions into court, and they’re often older people who are unaccustomed to using the electronic system.
Though it was probably the right call, ending the program led to a decrease in electronic filings. Masaniai still encourages attorneys to file everything electronically, but he doesn’t mention points or Harry Potter in court anymore.