Archived Version: August 7, 2012

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Tacoma News Tribune




For the Washington Supreme Court:
Gonzalez, Owens, Ladenburg

July 8, 2012 — The judiciary is the quietest branch of government. That can make it tough for voters to size up candidates for crucially important positions on the bench.

In Washington, D.C., most people probably wouldn’t recognize Chief Justice John Roberts walking by on the sidewalk. That’s doubly or triply true of members of Washington’s Supreme Court, whose doings are little noticed except when rare landmark decisions – like the January ruling on public school funding – hit the news.

Voters face three choices for the high court in the Aug. 7 election. It’s a little misleading to call this a primary, because primaries lead to runoffs – yet any one of these three contests could be decided in August.

Under judicial election laws, a Supreme Court candidate who wins a majority in the primary takes home the gold. The “primary” then amounts to the final. Serious voters will want to look at these races closely.

We hope they’ll look particularly closely at the contest for Position 8, which pits Justice Steve Gonzalez against Bruce Danielson.

Gonzalez, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year by Gov. Chris Gregoire, is superbly qualified. A graduate of Berkeley School of Law, he has been a prosecutor for the City of Seattle and the U.S. Justice Department. He served on the King County Superior Court for 10 years before his appointment.

Danielson is not remotely a match.

In this case, the endorsements say it all. Roughly 250 judges across the state support Gonzalez, including current and retired Supreme Court justices, superior and district court judges, magistrates and court commissioners.

Tellingly, at least 10 Kitsap County judges have lent their names to Gonzalez’s campaign. Danielson practices law in Kitsap County and has unsuccessfully run for the bench there. The county’s judges presumably know him well. Enough said.

In the race for Position 2, 12-year incumbent Susan Owens faces challenges from Douglas McQuaid and Scott Stafne, who practice in Seattle and Arlington, respectively.

Neither McQuaid nor Stafne is mounting much of a campaign; perhaps they are hoping for a fluke victory (it happens in judicial races). Owens – who’s been on the bench in some capacity for more than 30 years – enjoys broad support among those who know the courts. She is unquestionably the superior candidate.

Position 9 offers the richest and most complex choice. Former Justice Richard Sanders, who was unseated two years ago, faces former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Hilyer and high-powered defense attorney Sheryl Gordon McCloud.

Each has very considerable strengths. Sanders and McCloud may possess the most formidable intellects. But Sanders has already proven himself a doctrinaire libertarian on the court, and McCloud to all appearances would be a fiery liberal.

We’d prefer someone with less of an agenda. Hilyer might fit the bill; he has plenty of trial court experience and is well-regarded by other judges.

The most unconventional alternative is Ladenburg. He’s spent most of his career making things happen, most notably as Pierce County’s chief executive and prosecuting attorney. He offers the court an encyclopedic, trench-level understanding of intricate local problems – things like transportation, zoning, municipal government and collective bargaining.

It’s been our experience, having watched Ladenburg for many years, that he is willing to make tough, unpopular decisions in the public interest. That’s a compelling qualification for Washington’s court of last resort.

For judge: Hogan, Costello, Arend, Nelson, Rumbaugh

July 22, 2012 — You don’t have to be a time traveler to see why citizens should educate themselves before voting for judges.

Just three years ago, a newly elected judge, Michael Hecht, left the Pierce County Superior Court in disgrace after being convicted of felony harassment and patronizing a prostitute.

Hecht was an obscure, marginal lawyer who saw his main chance in 2008 when Judge Sergio Armijo got poor ratings from the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association. Armijo had a record to defend, and Hecht had none. His penchant for addicted and desperate street kids surfaced after his election.

Lesson: A lower-tier incumbent can be far superior to a stealth challenger.

Pierce County citizens have choices for five Superior Court seats this summer – an unusually high number, because attorneys are normally hesitant to challenge sitting judges. Decisions, decisions:

• In Department 5, Jack Hill, who directed the county’s criminal defense program for many years, has challenged Judge Vicki Hogan, a 20-year veteran of Superior Court.

Hogan is a widely respected, no-nonsense courtroom manager with immense experience on the bench. She’s not perfect – no judge is – but on the whole she’s quite impressive. There’s simply no reason to replace her.

• In Department 7, Judge Bev Grant faces Jerry Costello, chief of the homicide division in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Oddly, this isn’t the seat Grant now holds; she’s leaving Department 18 to run for a position left open by the retirement of Frederick Flemming.

Grant has been a disappointment in her nine years in the office – so much so that the lawyers who responded to this year’s bar poll gave her a staggering vote of no confidence. Most of them said that they couldn’t expect her to handle their cases with fairness and competence; most said they wouldn’t vote to re-elect her.

Costello, in contrast, is well-regarded in legal circles. He has a formidable work ethic, a reputation for good legal judgment, and a demeanor that inspires trust. He is the best choice for this seat.

Department 12 offers a closer call. Incumbent Judge Stephanie Arend is good at her job; lawyers give her high marks for fairness and skill. Her opponent, Antoni Froehling, is a public-spirited attorney who has served many years on the Sumner School Board and in other volunteer positions.

He’d likely make a fine judge. But Arend already is a fine judge – no likely about it. The county should keep her, and her 13 years of experience, on the bench.

• There’s a slight echo of the Hecht vs. Armijo contest in Department 13.

Judge Kathryn Nelson is not the most distinguished judge on the court, but Pierce County has seen far worse – and there’s no reason to believe her challenger, James Schoenberger Jr., would be a trade up.

A transplant from Illinois, Schoenberger’s career in this area hasn’t been outstanding. He appears to be running on a personal animus against Nelson. There’s no hint of Hecht-style sleaze about Schoenberger, but we think voters would be wise to stick with the incumbent.

Department 18 – the one Grant is leaving – features a race between two capable attorneys, Helen Whitener and Stan Rumbaugh.

Whitener projects intelligence and dignity, essential qualities in a judge. But Rumbaugh, who ran for the state Supreme Court in 2010, has multiple advantages: roughly 20 more years of experience, more thorough vetting by the legal profession and a longer record of accomplishment.

He’s a known quantity, and what’s known is good. We wouldn’t hesitate to endorse Whitener over several other candidates on this ballot, but Rumbaugh is too seasoned and capable to pass up., P.O. Box 1460, Silverdale, WA  98383
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