Only one of the eight Spokane County District Court judges faces a challenger this year, Judge Debra Hayes. So it seems the complaints and frustrations with the courts are being filtered through this race.
Challenger Timothy Note is a respected criminal defense attorney with his own practice. He says the court isn’t transparent enough and that it does not have a sufficient customer-service focus. He complains of having to hunt for judges at times, especially late in the afternoon, saying they can be difficult to find.
We noted in a recent editorial that courts shouldn’t be exempt from the state Public Records Act and that it shouldn’t be difficult for the public to discern whether judges are in attendance on a particular day. When Hayes’ attendance records were sought, the court administrator eventually turned over a summary of days off prepared by the judge herself. That isn’t sufficient, because it isn’t verifiable. We also agree that courts ought to be organized in a user-friendly way.
However, we’ve also noted that Hayes’ absences appeared to be for good reasons. Her son died of an overdose, and she had some health problems.
When asked for specific reasons why Hayes should be voted out of office, Note focused on her courtroom demeanor. He doesn’t like the way she treats attorneys and clients. He also points to the fact that she is the subject of the most affidavits to get cases transferred to other judges. But there can be several explanations for this, one being that she takes a fairly hard line on drunken driving cases.
The Spokane County Bar Association evaluated both candidates in five areas, with one of them being judicial temperament. Note was rated higher in that category but by a minuscule margin. Overall, Hayes was rated “well qualified” and Note was rated “qualified.” The largest gap in the Bar Poll could be found under “relevant legal experience.” Hayes also tops Note in “legal ability.”
One area of disagreement is on the issue of judges accepting plea deals. Defense attorneys and prosecutors routinely hammer out agreements to avoid time-consuming trials. Typically, judges accept them. Without plea deals, court dockets would be horribly jammed. Hayes, however, isn’t afraid to assert her discretion if she thinks the deal isn’t proper. We’ve seen no evidence that she does this so often that it has become a problem.
We support a smooth-running court system, but we don’t think that should become an end in itself. Courts are also the place to administer justice, and at times that can be inconvenient to the players involved.
Note has some valid complaints about District Court in general, but that’s not the same as saying he would make a better judge than Hayes. She is more experienced and is rated higher. We think voters should keep her.