Judge Has His Own Legal Problems Colleagues Praise His Work Despite ‘Flaky’ Behavior
If Pend Oreille County District Court Judge Chuck Baechler remembered to make a New Year’s resolution, it might have been to quit procrastinating.
Thanks in large measure to repeated failures to get things done, the 39-year-old judge has a court record rivaling those of many people who appear before him.
He has been fined, sued and cited numerous times for failure to pay taxes and vehicle fees, failure to answer charges in court, failure to file reports, even failure to represent a client in his private law practice.
Colleagues say Baechler has done a good job in four years as a judge despite personal behavior that one friend described as “flaky.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys say Baechler has been fair and competent on the bench. He is especially praised for the eventempered, respectful way he deals with people.
“I think he does a wonderful job of handling people,” Newport defense attorney Anna Nordtvedt said.
Just a week ago, she said, one of her clients asked whether he could thank Baechler for helping him kick a drug habit by ordering him to treatment a couple of years ago. “He just felt like he was treated with courtesy and respect, and that is the thing Chuck has a gift for.”
Now, Baechler said, he’s getting help for his own problem.
“I’ve laid awake at night wondering why I can’t get things done,” he said.
He went to a counselor early last year and was diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. He is now taking the drug Ritalin, which he said “helps a lot.” Baechler said the diagnosis doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for his problems.
“The thing it does is to provide some explanation outside of the things that people might normally speculate,” he said. “It also provides a basis for me to be optimistic about my ability to meet my responsibilities in the future.”
Dr. Michael Manz, a Spokane psychiatrist, said attention deficit disorder is a treatable disorder caused by a structural problem in the brain. Typical symptoms are decreased attention span, impulsiveness and irritability - but some patients don’t have all the symptoms.
The condition is “absolutely not” a reason to believe someone is incompetent, Manz said.
Baechler’s private problems began spilling into his public life last year when state officials announced plans to sue him to collect $950 in fines for failure to file several routine Public Disclosure Commission reports. At the time, he had the worst compliance record of any public official in Eastern Washington.
Last month, Pend Oreille County commissioners ordered Baechler to turn in a county car he had been using for personal as well as official purposes.
“It was an effort to ensure that county resources were being properly used and to avoid any appearance of improper use,” Commissioner Joel Jacobsen said.
Baechler said he provided gasoline for his personal mileage. He defended his use of the car on grounds that he is always on call to issue search warrants and handle additional duties as the Superior Court commissioner.
Auditor Ann Swenson said she was concerned about county liability because Baechler’s driving license was suspended during part of the time the car was in his possession.
Baechler said he still isn’t sure his license actually was suspended, but he didn’t drive during that time.
His license was suspended Aug. 30 after he failed to appear in Spokane County District Court on a second-degree negligent driving charge. He said the hearing was rescheduled and he didn’t receive notice of the new date.
The citation resulted from a one-car rollover near Chattaroy on May 15 that destroyed Baechler’s 1986 Dodge Colt.
A Washington State Patrol trooper reported Baechler had been drinking, but his sobriety was unknown at the time of the 3:39 a.m. accident. No sobriety testing was done when the trooper arrived an hour after the crash, and Baechler was not charged with an alcohol-related offense.
Baechler said he spent the previous evening at his brother’s house in Spokane and had some beers before going to bed, but he wasn’t under the influence during his early morning trip to Newport. He said he left early to avoid road construction and so he could do some work before court at 9 a.m.
He fell asleep at the wheel and veered into the median.
Spokane County District Court Judge John Madden dismissed the charge Sept. 10 after Spokane attorney Lorraine Parlange negotiated an agreement with the prosecutor’s office. Baechler’s driver’s license was restored the next day.
Deputy Prosecutor Mike Carbone said he thinks marital problems account for many of Baechler’s “lapses in personal judgment, but I haven’t really seen that carried over onto the bench. He’s always steady, stable, rational.”
Acting as his own lawyer, Baechler filed a divorce petition against his wife, Debra, last April 17 in Lincoln County.
About the same time, Carbone said, Baechler “wasn’t as punctual as he should have been and at times it was kind of annoying.” Carbone said court officials sometimes didn’t know how to locate the judge, but he thinks Baechler “got the idea that some people were getting annoyed” and corrected the problem.
About the same time, another of Baechler’s problems came to a head. Spokane residents Nancy and Michael Kuehn sued him for malpractice.
The Kuehns hired Baechler in December 1992 to file a personal injury lawsuit for them. They said he assured them the action had been filed, but it never was. When they found out, it was too late for the claim to be filed.
Baechler failed to show up in court to defend himself and lost a $43,654 default judgment to the Kuehns. The couple is in the process of garnisheeing Baechler’s $66,000-a-year wages, but their new attorney said a lump-sum settlement is being negotiated.
Baechler said he never intended to defend himself in the lawsuit: “The malpractice occurred. I wasn’t going to contest that.”
Court records show Baechler has been targeted by five tax warrants since 1990 to collect $4,465 in taxes and penalties. He also was sued by Northwest Checkrite last year, a case that apparently was resolved out of court, and by Inland Bonding Co., which won a $2,131 default judgment in 1992.
In addition, Baechler was cited three times in 1995 for having an expired vehicle license. On the third occasion, he also was cited for third-degree driving with a suspended operator’s license, no proof of insurance and no license on his person.
Meanwhile, the jury is out on whether Baechler is taking too long to issue findings of fact in a highly publicized animal-cruelty case he tried last June. The judge said the delay is justified because Jeanette and Swen Bergman were convicted of numerous counts, and he expects his findings to be “reviewed with a microscope” on appeal.
The findings of fact, which give the judge’s reasons for his verdict in the nonjury trial, are to be the basis for an appeal. The Bergmans were given jail sentences, but remain free pending appeal.
“The Bergmans, I know, would like to have it resolved because it hangs over their heads,” said Jeanette Bergman’s attorney, Dennis Scott. “But a client who never gets to court never gets to jail.”
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