A young attorney who has big ideas on how to make court more efficient is taking on a one-term judge who said her life experiences have made her better at making tough decisions.
Defense attorney Timothy Note, 35, is challenging Spokane County District Court Judge Debra Hayes in the Spokane area’s only contested judicial race on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
Hayes, 54, cited her four years of experience on the job, life experiences and community service.
“I think that looking at the two of us, it is a pretty clear choice,” Hayes said. “I’m committed to being a fair and impartial judge.”
But Note, an attorney since 2004, said he has more than 100 fellow lawyers endorsing his campaign to bring more structure and accountability to District Court.
“My platform is not endearing me to the judges who are working there,” Note said. “But at some point, the gravy train needs to end and we need to get back to the people’s work.”
He said too often attorneys can’t find a District Court judge in the afternoon when they need an order signed.
“What we pay our judges is a significant amount of money,” Note said. “They are public servants and they need to serve the public not only by giving a fair hearing but showing up at work on time and putting in a full day’s work.”
By statute, District Court judges are paid $141,700 with full benefits. In addition, they get six weeks paid vacation and whatever time is needed for continuing education. District Court is where generally lesser offenses such as traffic violations and misdemeanor crimes are handled, as well as certain civil cases often referred to as “small claims court.” The judges, however, have broad authority to sign search warrants, set bail in criminal cases and, on occasion, are called upon to preside temporarily in Spokane County Superior Court.
Hayes acknowledges that she missed significant time in 2008 after her son died. She also missed time at work in 2009 because of an illness.
“I have never taken off more time other than those times. Even that was covered. I had a lot of sick time made up,” she said. “At no time did I take more time than was earned.”
Note said his research into how much time judges spend at work was thwarted by the way District Court judges track their time. For instance, Note said, judges often schedule themselves as presiding over trials that they knew were not going to happen.
“This is a poorly kept secret,” Note said of the judges’ schedules. “It’s appalling. It’s offensive. I don’t know if people will get outraged, but it’s outrageous. One of the things I will do is make my attendance a matter of public record. I don’t think it should take an act of Congress to get a judge’s attendance record.”
Hayes worked full time as a single mother through college and Gonzaga University School of Law. She said she remembers when she was working as a deputy prosecutor how it was often difficult to find a judge in the afternoons in District Court.
“I think there has been a perception over the years that (judges) weren’t fully committed,” she said. “But I rarely leave before 5:30 or 6 at night. My schedules have kept me in court so I think Mr. Note’s observations about there not being a judge there until 5 p.m. are misplaced.”
However, Hayes said the time she took off after her son’s death changed her. She said her son was prescribed pain pills for an injury that became an addiction and that eventually killed him in 2008 when he injected heroin.
Previously, “I was more black and white. I was like, ‘You’ve been a victim of something. Why are you self-medicating?’ I didn’t really understand the heart and soul of an addict,” she said. “I also realize there is a time when your addiction or alcoholism puts the community at risk and you have to be held accountable. But I think about second chances differently. I think it’s made me a better judge.”
Note agrees, saying that many of the crimes that come to District Court are alcohol-related. He said he would prefer to see more efforts to get treatment for addicts and alcoholics. He would also streamline the hearing process so people who have jobs don’t have to wait half a day in court to get their case continued.
“A lot of these guys still have positive things in their lives. They are not career criminals. We have a choice to incarcerate them or we can keep them stabilized until we address their underlying issues,” Note said. “I’m not anti-jail. But for some people on the edge, jail is the worst thing you can do for them. If they lose their jobs and can’t support their families, they become disenfranchised and they become the most dangerous people in our society.”