by Jim Reierson
Once again, Spokane County Commissioners have had the opportunity to make an appointment to District Court. Thirteen candidates applied for the opening, and on Feb. 23 it was announced that local attorney Harvey Dunham was selected to complete the remaining two years left on the term Judge Harold Clarke III had been serving. Two of the three commissioners, Phil Harris and Mark Richard, recommended Dunham, while Todd Mielke rightly objected to the selection, due to his belief that one of the five finalists selected by a seven-member judicial review panel should have been chosen. Dunham was not one of the five finalists. Interestingly, the Board of Commissioners had created this panel after an offer by the Spokane County Bar Association to conduct a poll with its members was ignored. Creating a panel under the guise of selecting the most qualified person and then rejecting it out of hand is a sham process.
In 1995, the last time the County Commissioners requested a bar poll, Republican legislator Mike Padden was ranked 17th out of the 21 candidates who applied for a vacancy on the District Court. He was appointed anyway. In 1997, the County Commissioners (including Phil Harris and Kate McCaslin) did not request a bar poll nor any type of judicial review panel to assist them in filling the next vacancy. Greg Tripp, an attorney in private practice, was selected. Tripp had served on McCaslin's last election steering committee in 1996 and had essentially run her campaign. Neither Padden nor Tripp were career prosecutors or criminal defense counsel. After Dunham was selected, Commissioner Harris told the Spokesman-Review, "I'm not giving up my right to political appointment." He also added that Dunham's court experience made him highly qualified.
What is Harvey Dunham's legal and court experience? He has been in private practice in Spokane since he returned home from Texas years ago. His legal career in Texas is unclear. He has not been a prosecutor in Spokane, nor has he done much criminal defense. He has served as a part-time pro tem judge in District Court for seven years, hearing traffic ticket cases, other minor infractions (with no jail penalty) and small claims cases. Pro tem judges are not elected and generally get the opportunity to be a pro tem only if they are a good friend with a local judge or have powerful connections. Both Harris and Richard told the Review that Dunham is their friend.
In 1998, I competed against both Harvey Dunham and Harold Clarke III in the primary election for a vacant District Court judgeship. I prevailed over Dunham in the primary but lost to Clarke in the general election. During the campaign, Dunham made public comments on laws he either didn't like or agree with and how he viewed the role of a judge, which raised legitimate questions about whether he would follow established rules of evidence and the vital constitutional safeguards that should be afforded to all accused persons.
District Court is the court in which most Spokane County residents will appear, whether they are charged with a crime or are victims of criminal activity. The criminal cases handled in this court include Driving Under the Influence (drugs or alcohol), possession of illegal drug paraphernalia, petty theft, assault, domestic battery and cruelty to animals, among others. All affect the quality of life for you and your family. It is essential that District Court judges have the respect and support of the public. Yet how is that ever going to happen when the manner in which these appointments are made by the County Commissioners continues to be dubious?
I suggest the power to appoint District Court judges needs to be taken away from County Commissioners across Washington state. Any vacancy should be decided by an election, with the registered voters in each county making this important decision after having an opportunity to review the qualifications of the candidates. The Washington State Legislature must change current statutory law. The representatives and senators who make up this body are all elected by you, the people. This means they are accountable to you. There is a safety feature in the current system: Any judge can be disqualified without cause if the person appearing in front of that judge feels he or she can not get a fair hearing. Also, a judge appointed to fill out a term must face election, as Dunham will in 2006. The voting public can then review his performance, but only if Dunham is challenged by an opponent. (In Spokane County, voters don't usually get the chance, since it is rare for sitting judges to be challenged.) That's why he'll likely remain a judge for life, four years at a time, collecting nearly $120,000 as an annual salary.
I believe voters in Spokane County should decide who their judges will be. I can speak from experience, having run unsuccessfully in 1998 and 2002. This decision-making process is being denied the public with the current appointment system, which in Spokane County has been largely based on cronyism and partisanship. Weren't our Commissioners elected by the people to represent all the people and not just Republican Party members?
Jim Reierson, a Spokane native and resident, currently is a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Kootenai County, Idaho.
Publication date: 03/10/04