How might this look on a Jane Hague campaign brochure? "I am the only King County Council member whose actions have led to new ethical standards for county judges."
The beleaguered Republican, weighed down by re-election contribution violations, overblown educational claims, and a drunk-driving arrest, can rightly, if only slyly, now boast of that accomplishment.
Because of her, current and future county "pro tempore" judges and commissioners will now be subject to criminal background checks—something that wasn't previously required. No longer, say embarrassed officials, will judges be hired who have worse records than the people they're judging.
The screening flaw emerged during a King County District Court hearing in Hague's DUI case, when the county fill-in judge who was hired to preside that day turned out to have a criminal record.
The breakdown has led to new proposed court procedures at both the District and Superior Court levels. The higher court is in the process of creating "a blanket rule that every attorney who sits as a pro tem judicial officer must have a criminal records check," says Michael Trickey, the Superior Court presiding judge, in announcing the change.
The presiding judge in District Court, Barbara Linde, calls new background checks "a priority."
Though policy may not be finalized for another week, the lower-court measure could be especially restrictive as proposed by a court committee. "The recommendation," says Linde, "is that criminal history within the past 10 years renders an otherwise qualified attorney ineligible to serve as a judge pro tem."
While Superior Court judges handle splashy felony cases, district judges preside over misdemeanor, traffic and domestic violence cases. They're no less important to the public good, however, and have lately been involved in a second politically charged case: the domestic violence arrest of Seattle City Council member Richard McIver, in which a District Court judge arraigned him and released him on his personal recognizance. (Because a judge who knows McIver had to recuse himself, and no other full-time or pro tem judges were available, McIver had to spend two nights in jail awaiting his hearing.)
The new requirements are not aimed at full-time elected judges at either level, who are vetted by the state bar, by court administrators, and through the give-and-take of political campaigns, officials say. Judges are also expected to voluntarily disclose meaningful violations.
This all comes about following the dismissal of Richard L. Jones, a Bellevue attorney and judge pro tem who filled in on the District Court bench in Redmond at an Oct. 1 DUI hearing in the Hague case. A relatively new pro tem sitting in for an absent full-time judge, Jones, at the request of both sides, granted a continuance in the case until after the November election, a ruling especially favorable to Hague.
As Seattle Weekly first reported, that resulted in an Oct. 2 e-mail to Linde from Hague's council election opponent, Richard Pope, who has complained about, among other things, court favoritism toward Hague. Pope, a Bellevue attorney familiar with Jones' background, called the pro tem a "Republican activist" in the e-mail and asked Linde how Jones could be sitting on the bench with a criminal record that included arrests for assault and for burglarizing his ex-wife's home. Both were felonies Jones pleaded down to misdemeanor convictions.
Linde quickly removed Jones from the hiring list and proposed background checks for pro tems, who are paid $76.40 an hour. Current requirements include being an attorney in good standing with the Washington State Bar Association and completion of a two-day pro tem training class taught by other judges.
Pro tems should also have five years of civil or criminal experience, Linde says—though preferably not as a defendant. "The attorneys take an oath that they meet these qualifications," she says. But as the Jones case shows, that's insufficient. Though his criminal history was available on computers, the District Court had no policy to scrutinize its own records. Had they looked, officials also could have discovered the public notices of Jones' related disciplinary proceedings from the bar.
And now they will look. But telling judges the court will begin rummaging through their backgrounds could leave some pro tems reconsidering the public bench, Linde allows.
"Our plan is to notify all the judges on our list that their backgrounds will be reviewed, and give them each a chance to be taken off the list. Some may just decide they don't need to be pro tems anymore."
A recent review by Seattle Weekly of the District Court's 64 pro tem judges indicated none has a criminal record, although a few have collected a number of traffic violations. Linde said pro tem judges' traffic history could be an employment factor if violations are "substantial," particularly if they involve serious offenses such as DUI.
Veteran pro tem and Renton attorney David Tracy says he thinks most judges can live with the changes because their records are clean. "I don't know of a local judge who had a DUI in the recent past, for example. I do hear talk about some, and some have resigned, I understand, or lost their positions as a result," he says. Still, it's important that a criminal charge or drunk-driving conviction doesn't lead to automatic dismissal, he adds, and that the new rules don't unfairly exclude capable judges.
"Can Bobbe Bridge still do a good job? I think she can, although she should probably stay out of [reviewing] alcohol-offense cases," Tracy says.
Supreme Court Justice Bridge was put on probation with a deferred sentence and reprimanded by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for her 2003 Seattle DUI, but kept her high-court job. When she was arrested, her blood-alcohol reading was three times the state limit of .08. She recently announced her retirement, effective the end of the year.
Another King County pro tem judge, who asked not to be named, says she has no problem with the new proposals. "Judges, pro tem or otherwise, ought to have as clean a slate as possible, although I don't think they have to be perfect," she observes, suggesting the new standards not exclude judges with minor traffic records, for example. "You can argue that a judge who has been through a few scrapes might be more informed than one who hasn't."
Judges say they're under constant public scrutiny as it is, and misdeeds don't go unnoticed. Sometimes they're hard not to notice: While awaiting the outcome of a 1999 drunk-driving case, Lakewood Municipal Court Judge Ralph Baldwin invited attorneys into his chambers to share half a case of beer. After jurors rendered their verdict, he invited them to join the party. He was last seen driving off from the courthouse, beer in hand. He later resigned.
While the Superior Court's move is precautionary—"None of our full-time commissioners, pro tem judges, or pro tem commissioners has been the subject of bar discipline," and none has a record, says Trickey—the District Court is trying to firm up a comparably more casual hiring policy. Attorneys and retired judges, some with much narrower legal experience than Superior Court fill-ins, comprise the pro tem roster of the District Court.
"The only requirement for anyone to be a judge, pro tem or regular, is to be an attorney in good standing as a member of the bar, and you can have a criminal record and still be in good standing with the bar," says Tracy, the Renton attorney who has been a pro tem off and on for 25 years. "It's important to remember that people can make mistakes and still be good judges."