With one week until Spokane is required to open its new independent Municipal Court, opposition on the City Council has forced Mayor Mary Verner to withdraw her most experienced pick to serve as a judge.
Spokane County District Court Commissioner Brad Chinn was one of three people Verner selected last weekend to serve as the court’s new judges.
Some council members, who have the final say on Verner’s choices, questioned his appointment because of his fight against the construction of an office tower near his home, which is near the County Courthouse. Council President Joe Shogan said the council is concerned about conflict of interest issues regarding his appeal of the project.
Chinn has been a court commissioner for more than a decade, and is the only pick that has served behind the bench on a full-time, permanent basis.
“It’s very uncomfortable to be acting on an appointment by a person who is at the same time a party to a land-use appeal before City Council,” Shogan said.
Verner said she informed Chinn of her decision to withdraw his name on Wednesday, after it became clear that she couldn’t garner the votes to ensure his selection. She selected Assistant City Attorney Shelley Szambelan for Chinn’s spot.
“We expect we’ll have a functioning and fair judicial system on Jan. 2,” Verner said.
Spokane County District Court Presiding Judge Richard White said he is disappointed that Chinn will not serve on the city’s new court.
“He brings the experience to the bench that they desperately need,” he said. “He has demonstrated an extraordinary work ethic and great legal judgment.”
At the end of the year, the city’s current municipal court, which operates as a branch of the Spokane County District Court, will be dissolved. The City Council voted to make the switch to an independent Municipal Court earlier this month in an attempt to abide by a court ruling that said the city must have judges that are elected only by voters within city limits.
If Verner’s new nominations are approved by City Council, all three judges will have a background that includes employment as an attorney working for Spokane.
Szambelan will join Tracy Staab, a federal public defender and a former public defender for the city, and Mary C. Logan, a city public defender.
Verner and an interview panel that included District Court Judge John Cooney, Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, and Breean Beggs, executive director of the Center for Justice, interviewed nine candidates after the city received about 20 applications.
Chinn originally was not on Verner’s list of eight finalists, but the mayor requested to interview him after the panel asked that he be considered.
Beggs said all the selections, including Chinn and Szambelan, were considered qualified.
“All of the top candidates brought unique advantages to the positions based on their talents and experiences,” Beggs said. “(Chinn’s) experience as a court commissioner was one of the advantages that he brought.”
Chinn has opposed construction of a 10-story office building near the Courthouse. The project’s developer, Dr. Marcus DeWood, requested that the property be rezoned so he could build the 150-foot-tall structure. Previously, structures were limited to a height of 35 feet on the land.
After a series of appeals, the City Council is scheduled to consider the matter again in February. The matter also is part of case in Spokane County Superior Court.
DeWood has accused Chinn of using court time and his court computer to work on the case, but has failed to produce any evidence to support his claim. Earlier this year, he filed a records request, which was denied by the county, to gain access to all the files on his computer.
Asked if he had any proof that Chinn has or is using his office computer to work on the case, DeWood said: “I don’t. But how do I know he isn’t?”
Asked if it’s possible that Chinn used a home computer to work on the case, DeWood said: “I just don’t think he has one. That’s just my opinion.”
Shogan said DeWood’s allegation was another concern he had about Chinn’s appointment. But he said he didn’t have any other evidence except what he was told by DeWood when Shogan contacted him about it on Friday.
White said he’s confident that Chinn has done nothing wrong. His computer files weren’t released because files from a judicial officer’s computer are exempt from public disclosure, he said.
“I interviewed Brad, and he explained that all of the legal research and work he was doing on his own case was done on his own time,” White said.
It remains possible that Chinn could be selected by the city’s three new judges to serve as one of the court’s two court commissioners. Verner said she recommended that the new judges consult city council members to see if they had opposition to him serving in that capacity.
“I am very hopeful that the new judges will not let this unfair cloud over Commissioner Chinn influence his application (to be a city court commissioner),” White said.
Although he disagrees with the decision to withdraw Chinn’s name, White stressed that he believes Szambelan is qualified.
“She is a very well-regarded lawyer who possesses all the skills and personalities that will make her a great judge,” he said.
But Councilman Bob Apple said he opposes Szambelan’s nomination because she is married to assistant City Attorney Tim Szambelan.
“You want a judge who is not at the beck and call of City Hall,” said Apple, who said he was OK with Chinn’s nomination.
Apple also questions Staab as a city judge because she does not live within city limits.
Verner said the law allows Municipal Court judges to live outside city borders. As far as Szambelan, her husband works on civil matters that wouldn’t be considered by the new municipal court, she said.
Ultimately, Verner said, the voters will have the final say on the matter in November.
“It’s certainly something that will work out in the upcoming elections,” she said.