When Debra Hayes first considered challenging an incumbent Spokane County District Court judge in 2006, a fellow attorney told her she hadn’t paid her dues.
“Exactly what dues are you talking about?” replied the deputy prosecutor, former paralegal, former motel desk clerk and single mother of six.
“He’d didn’t have a good answer.”
Last week, Hayes earned her third consecutive four-year term, running unopposed for the first time.
During the past year, her responsibilities have included presiding over cases brought to Small Claims Court, where plaintiffs pay $14 to file suits and can seek damages of up to $5,000. Attorneys and paralegals are excluded from representing either party unless the judge grants permission.
During a recent interview, Hayes discussed how to prepare for Small Claims Court, the difference between justice and fairness, and career advice she offers teens.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Hayes: North of Spokane in the Elk-Chattaroy area. My dad was a farmer and logger, and we struggled financially. We didn’t have a telephone, but I could trudge a half-mile to use the neighbors’ party line. I remember Christmases where the only gifts were ones we made at school for our parents.
S-R: What were you interested in back then?
Hayes: (laugh) My career goals were either to race cars or go to New York and become a top model.
S-R: Any favorite activities in high school?
Hayes: Current world problems and student government.
S-R: Your Web profile lists degrees from Spokane Community College, Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga’s School of Law. What was your first job?
Hayes: I didn’t go to college until my mid-30s, when my youngest daughter was in kindergarten. I worked part time in a law office while earning my paralegal degree from SCC. At the time, being a paralegal was my only career goal. But watching attorneys in the law office, I decided if those guys could do that, I probably could too. Then I got divorced and was a single mom with six children, and law school seemed pretty remote. Still, I went ahead and earned my pre-law degree at Eastern.
S-R: Then what?
Hayes: I started law school, but dropped out twice the first year. My kids were struggling because of the family’s breakup, and I decided I needed to spend more time with them. I had too much education to get hired as a paralegal, so I answered an ad in the paper for a desk-clerk job at an inn up on Sunset Hill. The manager said, “You’re overqualified and I doubt you’ll stay, but I need someone today, so I’ll hire you.”
S-R: How long did you work there?
Hayes: They promoted me to front-desk manager within a few months, then transferred me to another hotel, and I stayed there through my first year of law school. I could set my own hours, but I was always on call, and had to respond to drug sales or any other issues throughout the night.
S-R: How long did it take you to get through law school?
Hayes: Three years.
S-R: What was your first job after graduation?
Hayes: I worked in the prosecutor’s office as a paid intern during my second year of law school, and joined the office full time after I graduated in 1999. I worked there until I was elected District Court judge in 2006.
S-R: When did you first consider seeking a judgeship?
Hayes: I was prosecuting in the juvenile department, and a supervisor asked me where I saw myself in five years. I said I was thinking about running for judge, and he said, “What did you just say?” Later, when I decided to run and took out a second mortgage on my home, even my close friends began questioning my decision.
S-R: But doesn’t it take confidence to be a good judge?
Hayes: Yes. You have to have confidence in your legal knowledge, and self-confidence that nothing will come before you that you’re not able to handle, especially in domestic-violence and criminal court. You also need confidence to call out senior lawyers when they need it. But it also takes patience, a passion for justice, and energy.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Hayes: I love my staff. I love resolving problems. I even like reading briefs and analyzing legal arguments. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
S-R: Do you ever look back and realize you put the puzzle together wrong?
Hayes: I’ve made a lot of mistakes, although I’m not sure how many I want published.
S-R: How about one?
Hayes: Being a judge is a learning process. Early on, I came out pretty forcefully with one particular ruling because I felt right about it. Then I went home, thought about it, and realized I was wrong. So the next day I call the attorneys into my chambers, explained that I was wrong – really wrong – and that I was changing my ruling. They looked at me like I was from outer space. It was very humbling.
S-R: What’s the hardest part about being a judge?
Hayes: I used to think that justice and fairness were synonymous. But something can be legally right and yet not really be morally fair, and all I can offer someone is legal justice.
S-R: Let’s talk about Small Claims Court. What is it?
Hayes: It’s where people come to have their day in court without the expense of hiring an attorney. Plaintiffs can seek up to $5,000, but I’ve heard cases that involved as little as a few hundred dollars. Those were more about the principle of the thing.
S-R: How does it differ from what people see on “Judge Judy”?
Hayes: An acquaintance who appeared before Judge Judy told me that before he went on the air, they encouraged him to antagonize the judge, because the more you get her going, the more caustic her remarks become. That adds entertainment value, but it’s not so great in a real courtroom. So I lay out the ground rules before we start. I tell them that If they have a question for the other side, they ask me and I determine if it’s relevant. If it is, then I will ask the question.
S-R: How should people heading for Small Claims Court prepare?
Hayes: There’s lots of information online. The most important thing is to make sure you have your facts straight and your evidence put together. I can’t consider oral agreements, and “I signed it but I didn’t read it” is not a legal defense.
S-R: Did skills you learned in the hospitality industry, as a paralegal and as a prosecutor transfer to the bench?
Hayes: All of them transferred, but the best skills were the ones I learned as a mom. A whole lot of mediation and conflict resolution goes on with six kids, as well as learning to listen to both sides.
S-R: When someone outside the courtroom discovers you’re a judge, what’s their reaction?
Hayes: Typically they say, “You don’t look like a judge.” So I ask them, “What does a judge look like?”
S-R: What insights do you offer people considering the legal profession?
Hayes: It’s a very demanding career. It’s more about your ability to persevere than whether or not you got the best grades in school.
S-R: You occasionally speak to high school students. What message do you hope they come away with?
Hayes: That within every person is a passion for something. I encourage teenagers to think about what makes them excited when considering a career, because a paycheck at the end of the day isn’t enough.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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