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Our View: Court positions will require informed electorate

If Spokane Mayor Mary Verner seemed a little uncertain on her way to nominating three initial judges for the city’s new municipal court, give her credit for wanting to deal with possible mistakes before it was too late.

Faced with 20 applicants for the three positions, Verner first passed over veteran Court Commissioner Brad Chinn, then reconsidered and made him one of her three appointees, then withdrew the appointment because Chinn was expected to meet resistance from the City Council over a potential conflict of interest.

The council probably will vote on Verner’s judicial appointments on Friday, the day the court itself becomes official. There was no time to waste.

As the mayor has noted, however, the voters will get to make their own choice next fall when the new bench positions are on the ballot. In a way, that’s comforting, but not entirely.

Verner had the opportunity to interview candidates. She had advice from a panel that included District Court and Supreme Court judges, a representative of the Spokane County Bar Association and the local attorney whose case affirmed the need for the new courts.

Still, at the end there was uncertainty because some council members don’t think Chinn, who is a party to an appeal over a city land-use decision, should also be a city judge. In addition, one council member who has no problems with Chinn, is troubled by both the replacement appointee, Assistant City Attorney Shelley Szambelan (because she’s married to another assistant city attorney) and one of Verner’s other choices, federal public defender Tracy Staab (because she lives outside the city).

If a mayor, with all the resources at her command to vet the candidates, can run into so many potential pitfalls, what will happen when the choices go on the ballot?

Verner’s nominees – Szambelan, Staab and city public defender Mary C. Logan – are not widely known in the community. If they run for office next year, voters probably won’t know much about them or, for that matter, their opponents. Few of the cases they preside over will generate publicity or otherwise provide insight to their qualifications for judicial office.

For years, the Spokane County Bar Association has coupled a poll of its members with an interview and questionnaire process to evaluate District Court and Superior Court candidates. That information is valuable, but incomplete if individual voters are expected to do more than delegate their duty to the Bar Association.

Ideally, the bar assessments will be part of the information dedicated voters collect next fall before marking their ballots for Spokane Municipal Court and other judicial positions. But for that to happen in a meaningful way, it will take engaged voters who are willing to search out information, diligent news media and civic organizations who can provide informational forums, and forthright candidates who will speak candidly about themselves and their credentials as well as their philosophies.

Many close followers of the courts already believe that choosing judges is too technical a matter for voters and should be turned over to lawyers and politicians. Voters who don’t want that to happen should make sure they do their part to hold the current system accountable.

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State lawmakers want to create a legislative loophole in Washington’s Public Records Act. While it’s nice to see Democrats and Republicans working together for once, it’s just too bad that their agreement is that the public is the enemy. As The Spokesman-Review’s Olympia reporter Jim Camden explained Feb. 22, lawmakers could vote on a bill today responding to a court order that the people of Washington are entitled to review legislative records.