Spokane’s independent Municipal Court has been in operation since the beginning of this year, and the coming election gives the city’s voters their first chance to have a say about who will administer it.
Of the three initially appointed judges, only Tracy Staab attracted a challenger in the Nov. 3 election – Spokane attorney Bryan Whitaker – and the contest seems to have shaped up as a question of credentials vs. geography.
Staab has a sterling legal resume that even Whitaker says is “prettier” than his, but unlike Staab, he resides inside the city limits. Whitaker also says his specific experience is more relevant to the job at hand, but that’s a dubious claim, considering Staab has actually been doing the job at hand for the past nine months.
Whitaker has been a lawyer here for 14 years and has served occasionally as a judge pro tem in District Court. As attorneys often do when running against sitting judges, he asserts that his immediate experience with clients places him closer to the people, closer to the community in whose name the law is administered.
That’s well and good, but Staab has been a practicing attorney, too. In both civil and criminal law. At both the trial court and appellate court level. Having done well in those roles, she had demonstrated legal abilities that suit her for larger responsibilities.
The Spokane County Bar Association’s two-part candidate assessment reflects those advantages. A special evaluation committee rated Whitaker “qualified” and Staab “well qualified.” A poll of members ranked her higher in all five categories considered: legal ability, judicial temperament, integrity, relevant legal experience, and suitability for the position.
But the underlying theme of Whitaker’s campaign is that she should be ruled out because she’s not a city resident. If Staab were helicoptering in and out from St. Louis or Pasadena, the residency concern would be persuasive. But the greater Spokane area is culturally cohesive enough that the just application of the law will not suffer because a city judge lives in an unincorporated part of the county.
If that were a real problem, the law would make residency a requirement for the job. It doesn’t.
Meanwhile, Staab’s demonstrated skills have generated an impressive list of endorsements from community figures who understand the demands of the job.
Whitaker’s campaign Web site lists two City Council members and a District Court judge as the most recognized names among his supporters. Hers offers 20 sitting and retired judicial officers, plus a widely diverse roster of local attorneys, including both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Staab is a known quantity. She has compiled an eye-opening legal background and has performed effectively in her present position. Spokane voters have every reason to keep her there.