On the bench for the past 25 years, Philip Thompson has watched Spokane’s drunk drivers, murderers and blue-collar criminals march through his court.
After stints in District, Superior and state Appeals courts, the longtime Spokane judge says he’ll hang up his robe Wednesday with just one regret.
“I feel regret at the ineffectiveness of the juvenile court system to deal with its problems,” he said.
“We just haven’t been able to take enough kids with problems and keep them out of the system for good.”
Thompson, 63, announced earlier this year he would leave the State Court of Appeals to become Gonzaga University’s corporate counsel. A Gonzaga law school graduate, Thompson has lived two blocks from the school with his wife, Colleen, for most of his life.
After graduating from law school in 1962, he went into private practice. He became a District Court judge in 1972 and moved up to Superior Court in 1978. He was appointed to the appeals court in 1983. Over 25 years, Thompson has run for re-election against an opponent only once.
Ready to become an attorney again, Thompson said he’s convinced that capable judges need two key skills: humility and honest respect for others.
His years on the bench also taught him that most people come to court burdened with dread and stress. Judges must make sure people feel less intimidated when they leave the court than when they walked in.
Thompson learned that lesson back in the 1970s while serving as a small claims magistrate in Spokane District Court.
One day he heard a case involving a condominium buyer who argued that the seller should reduce the sale price by a few hundred dollars.
The man told Thompson in court that a plumber working in the unit had brought his child with him and the child did serious harm to a carpet by spilling milk and breakfast cereal.
Thompson gave the man partial damages - but not as much as the man felt he deserved.
“He came up afterward and complained to me, saying what I’d done was wrong and so forth, and then he grabbed his chest, fell to the ground and died of a heart attack.”
Thompson learned then that what’s important in court is a matter of perspective.
“Judges or attorneys may think what is going on isn’t major. But to those in court, these are matters of great consequence,” he said.
While many judges get categorized as either book-smart or world-wise, Thompson is one of few Spokane judges who attorneys say scores high in both areas.
“He’s a very fair judge who has both qualities - sound legal knowledge plus solid insight into human affairs gained from experience,” said Spokane attorney Maryann Moreno.
That experience was culled from years of changes in the system and society. When Thompson began his career, about 65 percent of Spokane’s trials were civil disputes typically resolved in two to four months.
Now - three decades later - Thompson says Spokane’s courts face the same problems other areas do: too many criminal cases choking the dockets, not enough time and resources to handle all of them.
“I think the change - to having 65 percent of the cases now being criminal matters - reflects the impact of the Warren Court and many of its decisions,” he said.
Those decisions, Thompson said, helped shape the modern American court system in which speedy trial rights and the aggressive effort to defend criminal defendants now take precedence, he said.
“Most people don’t realize those changes only came along in the past 30 years,” he said.
Another change has been the growth in victim advocacy, and Thompson says that trend is both valuable and misguided.
“We’ve become more aware of crime victims’ rights in the sense they’re given the right to address the court now at time of sentence. That’s good because until recently we’ve neglected those concerns,” he said.
But he disagrees in part with the growing public rhetoric that suggests criminals are enjoying too many rights at the expense of victims.
Thompson says the angry public needs to re-examine why the American justice system does not place the victim at the heart of the trial process - it’s because defendants are punished for wrongs committed against the state, not individuals.
In other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the justice system places a different priority on victim’s rights. Recent stories about the beheading of an alleged murderer is an example, Thompson said.
“The Saudi court told the defendant that if the family of the victim were compensated a large enough sum of money, beheading would be avoided,” he said.
Neither system is perfect. But they’re clearly different, Thompson said.
While convinced courts need to adapt to community concerns, Thompson doesn’t believe the Legislature’s efforts to address a trendy crime always results in a fairer system.
Charges of driving while intoxicated is a good example, Thompson said. Now, prosecutors have no choice but to prosecute every driving-while-intoxicated charge they receive. But when Thompson was a clerk in Spokane Superior Court, prosecutors had discretion and only worked the most serious, flagrant cases.
The result was “the vast majority of those arrested were found guilty and their punishment was appropriate,” he said.
Now the volume in such cases is so high that prosecutors across the state tend to hand out plea bargains in most instances.
“The result is that we’re less effective in making sure that those who deserve retribution really get it,” he said.
Now that he’s leaving the bench, Thompson hopes to address the law’s troubling issues as a practicing attorney. He also will continue teaching at the law school, something he’s done for the past 15 years.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo