Judicial candidates face tough caseload

October 12, 2010

By Staff

Crammed onto the ballot alongside the marquee race for U.S. Senate and high-profile initiatives is another important decision.

The electorate in Issaquah and broad stretch of northeastern King County faces a choice next month to pick a pair of King County District judges.

The race for the Position 6 seat features appointed Judge Michael Finkle and Issaquah attorney John L. O’Brien. Redmond City Prosecutor Larry Mitchell is running against Newcastle attorney Donna Tucker for the Position 7 seat.

The contests mark the first elections for both nonpartisan positions. King County Council members — backed by the state — increased the number of District Court judges last year to address a burgeoning caseload.

District Court handles misdemeanor criminal cases, drunken driving offenses and traffic infractions, requests for domestic violence protection orders, small claims and some civil cases.

The court is on track for a record year of more than 253,000 filings by the end of December.

The caseload has ballooned in recent years due to increased DUI enforcement by the Washington State Patrol — as part of a push to reduce accident deaths — the expansion of the Mental Health Court and a shift of some felony drug possession charges and property crimes from Superior Court to District Court.

In addition to Issaquah, the Northeast Division includes Sammamish, Bellevue, Redmond, Woodinville and parts of unincorporated King County.

Judges earn $141,710 per year, and rotate through numerous assignments at the 10 county courthouses and justice facilities during a four-year term.

“You might have a judge who’s doing exclusively infractions for a one-year assignment, and then they might rotate and do criminal or civil,” District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde said. “Any new judge will eventually do everything in our system, but they may start doing more just one area.”

Because a state code of judicial conduct prohibits candidates from committing to a specific position in order to remain impartial, the District Court contenders instead offer broad statements about their experiences and values as clues to how they might rule from the bench.

Michael Finkle, Position 6

In February, the County Council tapped Finkle — then part of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office — to fill the just-added District Court post.

So, the Sammamish resident and longtime attorney departed downtown Seattle to serve as a judge at the Redmond Courthouse.

“I try to be welcoming. In other words, whether somebody’s charged with a crime, they’re there on an infraction, they’re an attorney, they’re a victim, anybody,” he said. “I try to make sure they feel comfortable in court.”

The outlook has earned Finkle plaudits from court spectators, and even a thank-you from a defendant the judge sentenced to jail.

Finkle has a broad background in municipal law and the Mental Health Court — a pioneering program to steer mentally ill misdemeanor offenders into court-ordered treatment instead of jail.

“While I’m on the bench, I am just thinking, ‘Do the right thing.’ When I’m off the bench, I can think about the consequences,” he said. “My folks taught me from an early age that you do the right things for the right reason, and damn the consequences.”

Finkle said judges should be flexible and able to adapt, especially as budget cuts strain the court system.

“The court system should be fluid. It’s an organism, and organisms grow and change and they adapt,” he said. “The ones that can do that, function best. If you don’t have judges that know how to do that, then I think your court system is going to stagnate.”

John L. O’Brien, Position 6

Throughout the campaign, O’Brien has highlighted the community connections he forged as a longtime Sammamish resident and a partner in the O’Brien, Barton, Joe & Hopkins law firm on Northeast Gilman Boulevard.

The founder of the Tastin’ N Racin’ hydroplane festival and Issaquah Rotary Club member sees a District Court position as another chance to serve the community.

“Serving as a judge is an extension of community service,” he said. “It’s not a job. It is one of the highest forms of community service that you can do.”

O’Brien has represented a handful of Eastside cities as a prosecutor in the District Court system, and has served as a pro tempore, or substitute, judge for 15 years.

“My experiences are on both sides of representing the government entities and individuals in the system,” he said. “I know what it means to a police officer and to a victim of a crime to bring a perpetrator to justice, and I know what it means to represent somebody on the criminal side of the issue.”

The duty of a District Court judge, O’Brien said, is to apply state law — and foster a respectful courtroom environment in the process.

“Everybody should be treated with respect, regardless of the severity of the case or how commonplace it might be to you,” he said. “You’ve got to treat everybody the same, because to them, it’s the most important thing in their life at that time.”

Larry Mitchell, Position 7

Before Mitchell became the Redmond city prosecutor 16 years ago, he worked his way through college for a now-defunct airline and, after law school, as a lawyer for the company. The airline folded in 1989, and Mitchell faced a tough choice. He relocated from Georgia to Washington, and took a job as a Redmond code enforcement officer.

The experience has helped Mitchell relate to the problems of the people he meets in the courtroom.

“I understand what it is to be thrown out on the street in tough economic times,” he said.

By 1993, Mitchell had become deputy city prosecutor and, a year later, ascended to the top job. Service to the court, he said, has been his highest calling in life — second only to his family.

The courtroom also functions as a classroom for Mitchell. The experience of handling domestic violence cases taught him to be more understanding of people in court.

“I’ve seen some domestic violence cases that are just appalling,” he said.

Judges, he said, should project a thoughtful demeanor in order to set the tone for the court.

“I think it’s important to be calm and patient,” he continued. “That is the approach I’ve taken as a prosecutor all through my career.”

Mitchell said King County residents deserve such a person as a District Court judge — someone honorable, honest and able to maintain his or her objectivity on the bench.

“That is the highest quality you can ask for in a judge: fairness,” he said.

Donna Tucker, Position 7

Tucker has sat on the bench in courtrooms across King County as a pro tempore, or substitute, judge for the past decade.

“In each case, I need to ask each side, ‘Is there anything you want to tell me in response?’” she said. “Things may appear to be totally obvious and they may not want to say anything, but I always ask. That’s the way you keep yourself from pre-judging.”

The courtroom setting could not be more different from her hardscrabble childhood in rural Texas and New Mexico.

Tucker developed a sense of fairness early on, after she witnessed widespread racism — and her grandmother’s efforts to fight segregation.

Tucker said her grandmother — a café owner in Tulia, Texas — emphasized equality and hard work. The qualities provide a touchstone for Tucker — the first person in her family to attend college — in the courtroom.

“I see in most people good human beings who sometimes make bad choices and decisions,” she said.

Judges, she said, should be respectful of all of the parties in a case.

“I think that judges need to project a confidence and a calmness and respect for the parties and the issues that are in front of the court,” she said. “You also have to have a demeanor of openness.”

Tucker — the co-manager of a law firm from 1987-2004 — started as a substitute judge in 2000, and soon learned judges must make tough decisions.

“The judge is prepared to accept the responsibility,” she said.

Why don’t judges campaign like other candidates?

Judicial candidates spend campaign season dodging pointed questions, because a state code of judicial conduct bars them from staking out a position on a specific issue, like, say, drunken driving offenses.
The code requires aspiring judges to emphasize the duty to uphold the law regardless of his or her personal views.
The guidelines also prohibit judicial candidates from making speeches for a political organization or nonjudicial candidate, offering public endorsements for a nonjudicial candidate or identifying as a member of a political party.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Tim Pfarr: 392-6434, ext. 239, or newcas@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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