Our view: High court justice with area ties held in high regard
July 26, 2008 — The scales of justice are supposed to be balanced.
In politics it's a different story, and the contest for Position 3 on the Washington Supreme Court is clearly weighted in one candidate's favor.
Seattle attorney Michael J. Bond wants to replace Justice Mary Fairhurst, who is seeking a second six-year term. He asserts that the courts' job is to protect the people from government abuse, and he touts his 28-year career as a military and private lawyer as broader and more relevant than Fairhurst's preparation for the position.
Except for an early stint as a judicial clerk, Fairhurst's experience between law school and the Supreme Court was all with the state attorney general's office. But she served with distinction under both Democratic and Republican attorneys general and had responsibilities in a wide range of legal areas, including criminal and civil cases.
And Bond can't top the most relevant experience of all – Fairhurst's six years in the job they both seek.
She has performed well, moreover, earning top ratings from a variety of bar associations – from qualified to extremely well qualified. Bond's ratings have been mediocre or lower. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys considers him unqualified.
At least one other thing should matter to Spokane-area voters. In a state where the Western Washington population concentration leaves only limited opportunity for Eastern Washington viewpoints on the nine-member Supreme Court, Fairhurst boasts solid connections with this area. She lived here as a child and still has family ties; she went to Gonzaga University and Gonzaga Law School. Later she clerked for Supreme Court Justice William H. Williams, previously a prosecutor and respected judge in Spokane County.
When Washington's highest court makes decisions, the values and experiences of the entire state need to be reflected in the deliberations. Keeping Fairhurst's experience and proven ability in the Temple of Justice would contribute to that outcome.
Our view: High court needs justice's populism, experience
July 27, 2008 — Charles Johnson has been a Washington state Supreme Court Justice for 18 years, but some people still wonder how an unknown Gig Harbor lawyer unseated Chief Justice Keith Callow in 1990.
Johnson's the long-timer now, trying for a fourth term by touting his experience. "Now when we have a discussion on a case, I remember what was said at the table 10 years before," he said. "That institutional memory (is) necessary to a stable decision-making process."
Two candidates filed against Johnson for the court's Position 4. Frank Vulliet, of Mercer Island, appears to be winding down a long legal career; during three recent winters, he worked part time in a bike and ski shop. Jim Beecher, a well-regarded Seattle lawyer, criticizes Johnson and the entire court for its divided opinions, lack of updated technology and long delays in deciding whether to consider cases.
All the candidates say they have raised or spent little money, though as of Friday only Johnson had filed the financial disclosure forms that back up that claim. Two years ago, the usually civil Supreme Court campaigns turned ugly because of huge amounts of money pumped into the race by homebuilder groups. This year's primary contest is back to polite.
Johnson has long been an advocate of open government and not just because it meshes with the views of newspaper editorial boards he seeks endorsements from during election time. He wrote the dissent in the Soter v. Cowles Publishing Co. In that case, Spokane Public Schools sued to prevent The Spokesman-Review from getting information about a student who died on a field trip. The court's majority said the information was exempt from public disclosure.
Johnson disagreed. He wrote: "The majority essentially creates a public nondisclosure act, turning the act inside out so that documents are withheld from the public unless the public can demonstrate that no remotely connected litigation exists, past, present, or future."
His dissent keeps with what he says is his philosophy on the court, that of a populist, a philosophy he attributes to the sawmill job he worked during his law-school years. And to the "blue-collar" practice he left when he won the Supreme Court seat in 1990, stunning jurists and pundits.
"If there's any wiggle room in our decision making, I try to wiggle on the side of the individual," he said.
Johnson has garnered a diverse set of endorsements, from the Association of Washington Business to Washington State Labor Council. He's earned the highest possible ratings from the majority of lawyers' groups that endorsed candidates in the primary.
Populist, centrist, experienced — and the caretaker of the court's institutional memory. No one might have predicted it 18 years ago, but Johnson definitely has grown into his senior status on the bench. We're recommending him for another term.
Our View: Court of Appeals, Division III, race is no contest
July 27, 2008 — Peering into judicial races can be a difficult task for voters. Which of the candidates with the requisite law degrees and expertise in highly technical matters is the best choice?
Such is not the case in the contest between Kevin Korsmo and Harvey Dunham for state Court of Appeals, Division III.
Korsmo has the experience, having established and supervised the appeals unit for the Spokane County prosecutor's office from December 1990 until February, when the governor selected him to replace Debra Stephens, who was named to the state Supreme Court.
You name the high-profile case that's been appealed, and he's handled it. In fact, he's managed more than 2,000 appeals and has argued 50 cases before the Supreme Court.
He has the knowledge, having been the go-to attorney for lawyers needing help with complicated issues. As Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Stevens said when Korsmo was appointed to the bench: "He's brilliant. It's a loss for us – and a huge gain for the state."
Korsmo's expertise in criminal law sets him up nicely for work at the appeals court, where nearly two-thirds of the cases in 2006 were criminal matters.
He has the respect of the legal community. Korsmo has gained plaudits for his demeanor, evenhandedness and scholarly approach. He has the endorsement of prosecutors and the county's chief public defender, John Rodgers. He is also supported by a long list of judges and is rated "exceptionally well-qualified" by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Washington Women Lawyers.
Dunham isn't rated by either group, but when county commissioners appointed him to a District Court seat in 2005, he failed to make the Bar Association's short list.
Then-County Commissioner Phil Harris acknowledged that it was a political appointment based on personal friendship.
Voters turned Dunham out of office in the 2006 primary.
Dunham has no experience with appeals. Nobody in Spokane County has handled more of them than Korsmo.
It's an easy choice.
Our view: District judge has earned a place in Superior Court
July 28, 2008 — The race for the Spokane County Superior Court seat, Position 1, being vacated by retiring Judge Robert D. Austin, presents voters with two well-known candidates and a Spokane native who has returned home.
Greg Weber, 41, was born and raised in Spokane but has spent most of his legal career elsewhere. After getting an undergraduate degree at Washington State University and a law degree at Gonzaga University, Weber served as a prosecutor in Okanogan and Pierce counties, then joined the state Attorney General's Office in 2001, where he eventually directed the Medicare fraud unit. He's now in private practice and has recently become a pro tem judge in District Court.
Weber hasn't garnered much support from the local legal community. The endorsements he touts are from outside the region. That's a testament to the strength of his two competitors, who boast stronger qualifications and greater familiarity.
Mark Vovos, 66, has been a high-profile defense attorney for decades and is known as a skilled courtroom operator. He certainly has the intelligence and knowledge for the position. Over the course of 40 years, he has appeared at all levels of the court system, including the state Supreme Court. Plus, he's handled a wide variety of cases, including the types that typify the Superior Court docket: marriage dissolution, and property and child custody disputes.
He teaches at Gonzaga Law School and was elected to the American College of Trial Lawyers. Some of his prominent cases include a successful defense of former Spokane Raceway owner Orville Moe against bribery charges and the Dean Mellberg shootings at Fairchild Air Force Base, where he represented some of the victims.
Annette Plese, 43, is a District Court judge, a position she's held since 2002, when she was appointed to replace Judge John Madden. Before that she was a court commissioner and deputy prosecutor for Spokane County, where she led the burglary and property unit.
Plese's reputation as a hard worker and fair-minded judge has helped her collect a lengthy list of endorsements, including nearly all current Superior Court judges. She also is the favorite candidate of law enforcement, grabbing the endorsements of the Spokane Police Guild, the Deputy Sheriffs Association and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. She is married to a retired deputy sheriff.
Based purely on scholarly knowledge of the law, the advantage would go to Vovos. But being a judge is also about making sound judgments about the facts of a case, being fair and running the courtroom in a professional manner. Counting her work as a court commissioner, Plese has had 10 years as a judge and 10 years to mess up. It's telling that she has earned the plaudits of her peers instead.
Based on that, she is our choice.
Our View: Superior Court judge has a proven track record
July 28, 2008 — As a deputy prosecuting attorney, David Stevens has seen Spokane County Superior Court Judge Linda Tompkins in action. He doesn't think she's up to the job, and he wants to take it away from her.
That sets the stage for the Aug. 19 primary election. Voters will either affirm her 11 years in office and give her four more, or they'll replace her with Stevens, who has been a deputy prosecutor since passing the bar two years into Tompkins' tenure on the bench.
There are arguments for and against both candidates, who present dramatically different experiences and preparation for the job. After weighing the evidence, we return a verdict for Tompkins.
Stevens' campaign message relies heavily on his experience prosecuting defendants in Tompkins' court. He describes her as an indecisive jurist whom defense attorneys can intimidate into unsound rulings that he's had overturned on appeal. He also portrays her as making inefficient use of the court's and court personnel's time.
He offers his own work ethic, common sense, organizational skill and knowledge of criminal law, honed in more than 100 jury trials, as a better alternative.
More to the point, he wants his prosecutor's viewpoint better represented on the bench, and he says other deputy prosecutors and frustrated law enforcement officers urged him to run against her. Stevens is not the first member of the Spokane bar to report disorganization under Tompkins' gavel, and by her own estimation her success rate on appeal is about 75 percent.
But in the eyes of her colleagues – who would have to pick up the load if she's a slacker – she has proved herself. Dozens of sitting and past judges endorse her, including six members of the state Supreme Court. The only judicial endorsement claimed by Stevens' campaign is that of Appeals Court Judge Kevin Korsmo, a former fellow prosecutor, who is endorsing Tompkins, too. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker also lend their names to Tompkins' campaign, and she has endorsements from the unions representing sheriff's deputies and corrections officers, taking much of the air out of Stevens' contention that Tompkins is in law enforcement's doghouse.
Perhaps the most striking contrast involves community engagement. Tompkins began practicing law here 24 years ago. She's also served on the Central Valley School Board, state Transportation Commission, Momentum and a host of other community agencies. As a result, her judicial performance is informed by a deeper understanding of the community where she serves. Meanwhile, she participates in a wide variety of leadership roles with the bench and bar.
Stevens had a hard-knocks upbringing in south Sacramento. He wasn't much of a student and had his own brushes with the law as a juvenile. That gritty but valuable education molded him into a resilient, dedicated prosecutor with a strong sense of personal accountability. But he concedes he has a lot to learn about civil law, which commands a large portion of the Superior Court docket.
Stevens demonstrates the potential to be a capable judge, but even though Tompkins has areas for improvement, she is already a capable judge, and she offers voters a better choice.
VotingforJudges.org, P.O. Box 1460, Silverdale, WA
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