Dennis Cronin thinks there’s reason to worry about Spokane County Superior Court. And it all starts with the image it presents to the public.
Like a castle up high, overlooking the city with jutting spires and an impressive, protruding tower, the attorney likens it all to a medieval stronghold – the judges the elite royalty, the attorneys perhaps like barons and baronesses, and everyone else: commoners, servants, and at the bottom, detainees.
“This has been endemic now for some time that the system is dysfunctional over there,” said the attorney with 33 years of legal experience. “Perhaps it shouldn’t be a judiciary that looks more like a fortress judiciary, over there in the fort, or the castle, where citizens are searched without a warrant when they go through the door.”
In November, voters will decide if they agree, when they cast their ballot for Superior Court Judge Position 10 – a seat on the 12-person bench that saw a shakeup just seven months ago after Superior Court Judge Linda Tompkins announced her retirement.
In February, Gov. Jay Inslee selected Shelley Szambelan from a pool of well-qualified applicants, including Cronin. The governor cited her “long history of legal and community service” and called her “smart, compassionate and committed to justice.”
Since her appointment, Szambelan, who was a Municipal Court judge for nine years, has been assigned a plea docket, though she’s also filled in extensively on the court’s chief criminal docket, where she oversees new felony charges coming into the courthouse.
Szambelan said she agrees with some of the concerns Cronin has over the court’s perceived reluctance to change, though because judges are supposed to be unbiased and do not create policy, her scope is limited. Still, she said issues affecting the county’s public safety, such as jail overcrowding and a high number of jail deaths, need to be addressed by the bench.
One of the solutions, Szambelan offered, was to be a part of court reform discussions, even if a judge cannot actively participate in the process due to limitations set by the state’s judicial canons.
Another solution is following the rules already in place. Szambelan said when someone is arrested, they have a constitutional presumption of innocence and release, meaning a court needs to find good cause to keep someone in jail after they’ve first appeared before a judge.
In Washington, the court follows a rule dictating that in order for a court to keep a person in custody, a judge must find that the accused is likely to not show up to future court hearings, is a danger to the community, and/or will seek to intimidate witnesses or interfere with the investigation.
There hasn’t been an official analysis or study to determine whether Spokane County is following these rules appropriately. But after the county was awarded a $1.75 million MacArthur grant aimed at reducing the jail’s chronic overcrowding, Szambelan said there’s been a renewed effort in following the rule and beefing up pretrial services to ensure inmates can spend more time out of jail while they await trial.
“There does need to be a fresh look at this,” she said. “The system is broken. And we do need to fix it.”
Cronin, who got a job out of college working for famed civil rights attorney Carl Maxey and has since moved on to run his own practice, wonders if a solution lies in a larger shift in perspective. He said the jail and county have had conversations for years centered on jail overcrowding, but they’ve yet to find a solution.
“We’re going backwards, even though we have the MacArthur grant,” he said, referring to the fact that the jail saw an increase in inmates this year after the money was awarded. “And many millions of dollars which we still don’t know what it was spent for.”
He’s also apprehensive about assigning blame to simply not following a specific rule.
“We have poor people, primarily, incarcerated despite the rule. We have people suffering from substance abuse incarcerated,” he said. “There’s a systemic problem over there. Something needs to happen. Something needs to change.”
Both candidates have a storied history in the county and as such have received widespread support in the nonpartisan race.
Szambelan, who has received endorsements from nine sitting Superior Court judges, all eight District Court judges and her three ex-colleagues at Municipal Court, also has earned the support of Mayor David Condon, City Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilwomen Candace Mumm and Lori Kinnear, according to her website.
“I’ve had really good experiences with Judge Szambelan as a Municipal Court judge. I think she’s excellent,” said Stuckart on Thursday. “But I also think Dennis Cronin is great as well. I think he’s really knowledgeable.”
Cronin, meanwhile, has won over many local labor unions, the county Democratic Party and local activists, including Pastor Walter Kendricks of the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church. He also has endorsements from a long list of local attorneys, as does Szambelan.
Kendricks said he “thinks the world” of Cronin, who has been active for many years in African American community affairs. That’s why, Kendricks said, he was disappointed to learn Inslee, a Democrat, picked Szambelan over Cronin in February.
“Somehow our cries went unanswered,” he said. “I, for one, am not real pleased with the governor for ignoring our pleadings.”
In terms of campaigning, both Cronin and Szambelan have hundreds of signs set up throughout the county and have made multiple public appearances, meeting with potential voters and fielding questions at candidate forums.
Campaign spending is where they largely differ. According to the most recent Public Disclosure Commission filings, Cronin is outspending Szambelan almost 2-to-1.
Whether that spending will have an impact will become apparent once the votes have been tallied. Historically, no matter the spending on the part of the newcomer, the incumbent in judicial races has had an enormous advantage.
It’s a point not lost on Cronin.
“They just vote the ticket,” he said of voters. “They vote incumbency, whether they know that’s the appropriate thing to do or not.”