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Judge ready to give up gavel

FRIDAY, MARCH 14, 2008

A veteran Spokane County Superior Court judge won’t seek re-election and will leave his courtroom at the end of the year.

In an interview, 63-year-old Robert D. Austin said his quarter-century career as a court commissioner and a judge has been fulfilling – but it’s time to retire.

He became a court commissioner in 1982 and a Superior Court judge in 1989.

“I’m proud to have served the people of Spokane County,” Austin said. “But it wears you out after awhile.”

If he’d stayed longer, Austin faced a rotation into Family Court next year. That’s where fighting couples “argue over who bought the most diaper wipes,” he said.

The judge said he’s announcing his decision now to allow sufficient time for the local bar association to evaluate potential candidates and give a heads-up to any lawyers who might be interested before the election filing week in June.

Austin said he knows of one district court judge who’s interested, but wouldn’t identify the judge.

Austin has presided over many notable trials, including the reverse condemnation battle over groundwater contamination at the city-county Colbert Landfill, a national class-action lawsuit over product bar codes that settled in Spokane, and the recent Spokane Raceway Park case against Orville Moe.

In January, Austin levied the largest contempt-of-court sanction ever in Spokane County Superior Court – $315,000 – against Moe, the deposed operator of Spokane Raceway Park. Moe had defied repeated court orders to produce ownership documents and business records.

Jim Murphy, a retired Superior Court judge who handles legal mediations, said Austin is a master at long, involved, difficult cases such as the Raceway Park trial.

“He’s done an admirable job shepherding that case. He’s a very bright man,” Murphy said.

Austin said that along the way, he’s learned a lot about human nature.

In one criminal trial involving a drive-by shooting at a Jack In The Box, Austin said he was struck by what happens to people’s power of recall during a violent act.

Nine eyewitnesses identified a black man as the suspect who fired into vehicles as people were lined up at the drive-through – but that’s where the agreement ended.

“They described him as tall, short, light-skinned, dark-skinned, right-handed, left-handed, a passenger and a driver. It was a classic example of how stress makes for unreliable eyewitnesses,” Austin recalled with a laugh.

The judge also said he was embarrassed in a civil case when he asked Deer Park High School student Michelle Bratton on the witness stand to repeat what she’d just said about a teacher she’d accused of seducing her. The case was so delicate that Austin took the unusual step of sequestering the jury; Bratton won her case against former teacher Trey Calkins.

“It was very emotional testimony. I couldn’t hear what she’d just said. She repeated in a loud voice, ‘He called me a … sex machine,’ ” Austin said. Ann Prideaux, Austin’s longtime court reporter, recalled what happened next.

Austin “turned beet-red. It was a very high color,” Prideaux said with a chuckle.

Austin said he’s only had one case of a racist jury in his career – the recent case in deliberating jurors repeatedly used racially charged names to refer to Mark Kamitomo, a Spokane attorney of Japanese descent, according to court affidavits.

“We’d hoped we’d moved beyond this, and we apparently have not. It’s upsetting,” an angry Austin said on Jan. 25 as he ordered a new trial in the medical malpractice case. Last week, he denied Kamitomo’s request to move the new trial to Seattle, where there is a more diverse jury pool. He’ll preside over the retrial.

Despite the Kamitomo flap, Austin said, his work with citizens who come to be jurors has been the most satisfying aspect of his job. “He gets letters from jurors thanking him,” Prideaux said.

In 2006, Austin said he drew a judicial misconduct complaint for expressing surprise at a verdict. “I shouldn’t have done it,” he said. “I agreed that was a no-no.”

His most difficult experience: dealing with defendants who insist on representing themselves in family and criminal cases. Such “pro se” cases are difficult to deal with, Austin said. One pro se defendant “is in prison for threatening to kill me,” he said.

A Spokane native, Austin attended Gonzaga College and Gonzaga Law School. His father was a banker with Old National Bank and his mother was a homemaker.

Austin said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Robin, a paralegal, his four grown children and his three grandchildren. He’ll travel, do some legal writing and some “not-so-legal-writing” – namely, fiction.

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