A Spokane County Superior Court judge who’s been on the bench for more than 20 years faces a challenge from an experienced civil attorney who thinks the county’s highest court needs new perspective.
Judge Greg Sypolt, who was appointed in 1996, is running against Tim Fennessy, who believes the court would benefit from having more judges with civil case experience.
Fennessy said the court is not as democratic as it should be, since judges often retire midterm and have their seats filled by governor appointments. Those judges can then run for re-election as incumbents and often go unchallenged.
“Our superior court is supposed to be an elected position,” Fennessy said. “It’s become a court of appointment. Practicing lawyers are discouraged from running against sitting judges.”
Sypolt disagreed that appointed court positions were political, noting he’s stood for re-election successfully multiple times.
Fennessy unsuccessfully applied for appointment to an open superior court seat last fall, when Governor Jay Inslee ultimately appointed Judge Julie McKay. He said he decided to run after that decision.
Fennessy promised he would not resign in the middle of a four-year term if elected.
Sypolt believes he’s proven himself a capable and fair judge with a commitment to increasing diversity in the legal profession and ensuring everyone has access to the courts.
“I continue to have the same energy and zeal toward my job that I did when I started many years ago,” he said.
Fennessy is seeking a seat because he believes court needs more lawyers with a civil litigation background, given the number of civil cases filed in superior court.
“I offer the opportunity to have someone with a little bit different experience, a little bit different exposure,” he said.
In 2015, about 5,000 criminal cases and 8,000 civil cases were filed in superior court, according to the Administrative Office of the Court. Another 10,000 cases filed were of various other types, including domestic, guardianship and juvenile. Criminal cases led to 251 trials in 2015, and civil cases to 57.
Though he has little experience on criminal or family law cases, Fennessy is confident he’d be able to get up to speed quickly.
“I think that the most important part of being a superior court judge is creating the environment for the lawyers to do their job and allowing the facts to come out so the law can be applied. I don’t think it’s incumbent on the judge to know each and every element of the matters they try,” he said.
As an attorney, Fennessy has tried many civil cases in front of state trial and appeal courts, including appearances in front of the Idaho and Washington supreme courts.
Recently, he successfully represented TJ Landco, a real estate development company that sued developer Harley Douglass for an $800,000 breach of contract in a land purchase deal.
In his questionnaire for the bar association, he said the case reminded him of the power of the law in helping “economically less capable individuals or small businesses to defend their economic rights.”
Since 2014, Sypolt has served as chief criminal judge, hearing first appearances, arraignments and pretrial motions for criminal suspects.
He said he’s very supportive of the county’s effort to reduce jail overcrowding and the disproportionate number of racial minorities in the criminal justice system through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The focus on reducing the overrepresentation of black and Native American people in jails was “paramount, for me at least,” he said.
Sypolt said he’s shown his commitment to equal access to justice through a number of projects, including serving on a Justice Without Barriers committee to make the courts more accommodating to people with disabilities, and helping to rewrite forms on dissolution cases to make them easier for people with no legal background to fill out, since many people represent themselves.
Sypolt has at times drawn criticism from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and prosecutors for his bail decisions, but that hasn’t stopped Prosecutor Larry Haskell and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich from endorsing him.
“I think that overall he’s very experienced. He brings that to the table. He’s a thoughtful person. That doesn’t mean I’m always going to agree with him,” Knezovich said.
Haskell praised Sypolt for conducting good trials. He said he normally doesn’t make endorsements in judicial races but opted to endorse Sypolt after the judge’s campaign requested it.
“That chief criminal docket is something you would hand off to a real stalwart,” Haskell said.
Fennessy said he also supports the MacArthur reform efforts, and using data to reduce jail overcrowding. He’s also mindful of the need to have progressive consequences for chronic offenders.
“The penalty probably needs to be increased and stepped up with each continued offense,” he said. “That has to be balanced by jail population and each individual case has to be heard on its individual level, but as a general standard I think that’s a data-driven choice.”
It’s rare for a challenger to unseat a long-serving judge, but Fennessy has attracted significant financial support. He’s raised almost $38,000, more than double Sypolt’s $17,000, including a $125 donation from Washington Trust Bank Chairman and CEO Peter Stanton and $250 from the Spokane County Democrats.
Fennessy said he sought endorsement from local Democrats and Republicans, but the Spokane County Republican Party didn’t have a separate form for judicial candidates allowing them to get an endorsement or contribution without endorsing the entire party platform. He said he didn’t feel comfortable endorsing any party platform because judges are supposed to be neutral and nonpartisan.
Fennessy was also endorsed by a number of people in the legal profession, including retired District Court Judge Sara Derr and Yakima County Senior Prosecutor David Trefry.
In a letter endorsing him, civil attorneys Kathleen Paukert and Richard Eymann said Fennessy is “extremely knowledgeable about the law, tremendously capable as an advocate and well-rounded enough to recognize that there are times when the law is not what his clients would like it to be.” Fennessy formerly worked at Eymann’s firm.
Sypolt has drawn endorsements from every other superior court judge, seven of nine Washington Supreme Court judges and a long list of attorneys and other community leaders. He’s contributed more money to his own campaign than anyone else, but he has received donations from retired Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor and the law offices of criminal defense attorney Christian Phelps and former City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, among others.
The Spokane County Bar Association rated both Sypolt and Fennessy well-qualified for the position, the second-highest of four possible ratings.
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