The single contested race for Spokane Municipal Court judge has somehow morphed into a battle of addresses rather than qualifications for the job.
Judge Tracy Staab, who was appointed 10 months ago when the city split away from Spokane County District Court during a legal fight over elections, is facing Spokane attorney Bryan Whitaker.
Both have about the same number of years of legal experience. Both have worked as prosecutors and public defenders, and both have support from heavy hitters in the legal field.
But Staab’s opponents – led by Whitaker – have taken umbrage with the fact she lives three miles outside of Spokane city limits, near Riverside State Park. Staab and her supporters dismiss the criticism as misguided.
“I think it’s a red herring argument. My (mailing) address is Spokane,” Staab said. “It has nothing to do with the qualifications of the judge. As a judge, one of the reasons we are not required to live within the city is because we don’t represent the city. The city is represented by a prosecuting attorney. My job is to be a neutral and impartial umpire.”
State law mandates only that the judges, including District Court and Superior Court judges, live in the county they serve. But Whitaker, 47, said he decided to run after city leaders appointed Staab.
“The real difference is I live here,” Whitaker said when asked to compare himself with Staab. “I’m part of my community all day long. That’s why I’m the best candidate.”
Staab, 41, disagrees, saying her experience – including drafting appeals argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court – gives her the advantage in the job that pays more than $120,000 a year.
“Experience and qualifications are very important in this job,” she said. “I have both as a candidate and judge. In addition to my experience, I also have a good track record. We’ve implemented several procedures and policies that help the court run more efficiently without compromising public safety or constitutional rights.”
Whitaker does not dispute Staab’s experience but points out that much of his experience was earned in Superior Court, which handles much more serious criminal and civil cases.
However, Whitaker also had a very public misstep in February while unsuccessfully defending Shellye Lynn Stark on first-degree murder charges. Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen declared a mistrial and later scolded Whitaker after he told jurors the trial was not a death penalty case.
“When you function at that level of court and make a mistake, it’s a glaring mistake,” Whitaker said. “Well, we got through the trial. I think it’s interesting that that would be considered a knock.”
Whitaker, who touts himself as a normal guy with a law degree, also said he flunked out of the University of Florida while seeking his undergraduate degree.
“I was just immature. I didn’t go to class so they disinvited me. I joined the Air Force and pulled my head out,” he said. “I’m just a normal person. I’m not a special person because I have a law degree. That’s how I approach my practice of law and how I would approach being judge.”
Patrick Johnson, who works as a Spokane County deputy prosecutor, said Whitaker’s honesty is what stands out in whatever legal role he takes. Johnson said he’s both worked with Whitaker and tried cases against him.
“Judges have to rely on their experience to make quick legal rulings,” Johnson said. Whitaker is “decisive and he also knows what he is talking about. He’s the kind of guy who can give you an answer right now and it’s going to be the right answer.”
Staab said her endorsement list, which includes many former judges, speaks for itself. She again touted her experience as the reason voters should retain her.
Other attorneys tend to agree. In a candidate assessment by the Spokane County Bar Association, Staab got higher marks than Whitaker in each of five categories, and her colleagues rated her “well qualified,” compared with Whitaker’s “qualified” rating.
Breean Beggs, a civil attorney speaking on his own behalf and not for the public interest law firm Center for Justice, said Staab has earned another term.
“I think she, and the other two Municipal Court judges, is putting forth reforms that are long overdue,” Beggs said. “As a result, I understand the number of people in the jail is going down for city cases. That saves money for taxpayers and gets people back to work.”
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