Spokane County voters won’t get the chance to oust their controversial coroner, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The decision struck down a recall effort by Dexter Amend’s critics, who hoped to put the issue on the ballot this fall.
Recall leaders claimed Amend broke the law last summer by telling news reporters a 9-year-old murder victim had been sodomized in the past.
According to the court’s opinion, Amend did publicly discuss Rachel Carver’s confidential medical records, but the girl’s father gave Amend permission to do so.
“The recall petition does not allege facts showing that Amend clearly violated the law,” the opinion said.
During 14 months in office, Amend has angered and offended a growing number of people, including doctors and grieving families who say he’s mishandled death investigations.
The coroner is elected and can’t be fired. Under law, recall proponents must show he broke the law, neglected or improperly performed his duties, or committed “wrongful conduct” affecting, interrupting or interfering with his duties.
Amend’s supporters applauded the court’s decision while critics mourned his remaining three years in office and vowed to regroup.
“I was elated beyond words,” said Jim Mertens, a retired high school teacher. “I’ve always felt the man was really honest and his only goal is to help save lives.”
Chris Christenson, who filed the petition to oust Amend, said the recall committee will meet to decide what to do next.
“I’m very disappointed, maybe even a little bit devastated,” said Christenson, a retired elementary school teacher. “I don’t think we’re ready just to say, ‘Hey, we lost.”’ The lawyer representing the recall group called the decision “strained reasoning.”
“They ignore the outrage of the folks in the Spokane community about his whole course of conduct,” said attorney Frank Malone.
Malone said Amend had already revealed Rachel Carver’s confidential records when he got written permission from her father, Scott Carver.
All nine Supreme Court justices reviewed the case twice before issuing their four-page opinion Thursday morning. They overturned a ruling by Adams County Superior Court Judge Richard Miller, who approved the recall drive last September.
Before Amend’s critics began collecting the more than 35,000 signatures needed to put the recall on the ballot, Amend appealed Miller’s decision to the Supreme Court.
Donald Kellman, Amend’s attorney, said the coroner benefitted from laws that make it tough to recall elected officials.
“The recall statute in Washington is a unique one. Unlike virtually every other jurisdiction in the country, Washington calls for a statement of cause,” he said. “I think that’s what the court focused on.”
Amend did not return calls to his answering service.
Michelle Lowell, who organized a rally to support Amend last August, hailed the Supreme Court ruling as a victory for free speech.
“No special interest group has a right to take away anyone’s freedom of speech, whether you’re in a public office or you’re a private citizen.”
She said liberals in the community are on a “political witch hunt” to boot the religious Republican coroner from office.
“They’re trying every angle to get rid of him.”
Amend faces numerous hurdles in the coming year, including six lawsuits and legal claims. Most were filed by people angry with how he handled a loved one’s death.
County officials say taxpayers have already spent nearly $45,000 defending Amend from the claims, which total $4.2 million.
The Washington State Risk Pool, which insures Spokane County, told commissioners it might not cover losses incurred by the county through Amend’s actions.
Commissioners, in turn, warned Amend they may leave him on his own when it comes to paying any judgments.
Amend and his staff moved into offices with metal detectors this week. He has received so many calls from angry residents, commissioners fear for his safety.
Dozens of doctors have signed a petition rebuking the coroner, and his colleagues in the Washington State Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners said his actions are hurting their profession.
Amend still faces the scrutiny of the state Medical Quality Assurance Commission, which is investigating complaints against the retired urologist at the request of Gov. Mike Lowry.
Lowry is expected to sign a bill passed by the Legislature this month to allow counties to trade their coroner systems for medical examiner systems.
Voters would make the final decision on whether to make the swap.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT Recall proponents regroup State Medical Quality Assurance Commission continues investigating Amend County defends Amend against lawsuits and legal claims totaling $4.2 million Governor will decide whether to sign bill allowing counties to replace coroner systems with medical examiner systems
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