When Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza died unexpectedly this year, several members of Spokane’s legal community threw their hat in the ring to fill the vacancy left by the longtime and well-respected presiding judge.
In May, then-deputy prosecutor Tony Hazel rose above the rest of the applicants after being selected by Governor Jay Inslee as Cozza’s replacement. Many expected the ensuing election later this year to feature only one name on the ballot.
But only weeks after taking the bench, two others filed to run against the newly-sworn-in judge: Jocelyn Cook, a county public defender, and J. Scott Miller, a private attorney with over 30 years of legal experience.
Their filing ensured this year’s race for Spokane Superior Court Judge Position 6 will go to the Aug. 1 primary. Then, voters will decide between the final two in November.
All three candidates have extensive, if varying, degrees of experience, and have differing views on what their priorities would be if elected. But all three have one thing in common: They all say they strongly support the Constitution, and a judge’s duty to uphold it.
“I’m a neutral decision maker and I try my best to follow the law as designed,” said Judge Hazel. “I think it’s important we have a judiciary committed to the mindset that we need to follow the law as designed by the legislature and within constitutional parameters.”
Cook and Miller hold similar positions, maintaining that while judges can be viewed as politicians, their allegiances should lie in the Constitution, not a political party.
Cook, an outspoken critic of judicial elections in general, said most voters aren’t tuned in to the needs and responsibilities of the court, so when they go to fill in the box on the ballot each year, many are going in blind. She said it’s not uncommon to see people default and vote for the incumbent, with a “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mindset.
Still, that hasn’t stopped her own bid, even if, she said, she doesn’t have the time or money needed to run a campaign, which can often take up as many hours a week as a full-time job.
“You have a choice,” she said. “You can either regret the next six months of your life or the next 20 years. I chose the next six months.”
If elected, one of her top priorities would be to curb public perception of judges, which she says is influenced by things like slogans or election signs dotting lawns and walkways throughout the county, not necessarily their history on the bench.
Though having a slogan herself, which is “care for the law and compassion for the community,” she said voters would be better off they understood the difference between a police officer’s, prosecutor’s and judge’s role in public safety.
“Judges are supposed to take the facts and law before them and make a decision,” she said. “It has nothing to do with politics.”
Miller, meanwhile, was a close friend of the late Judge Cozza, and even helped on a few of his campaigns. If elected, he said he would focus on filling the space Cozza left when he died, by matching his strengths of being impartial and fair, and by focusing on justice reform.
“Public service has always been important to me,” Miller said. “This is an opportunity to take it to the next level.”
Miller, who has over 30 years of experience, has recently been branching out into different areas of the law, including civil and corporate cases. He said he was influenced by a conversation he had with a close colleague, who compared a lawyer’s understanding of law to a baseball player.
“You have to be a player for a while before you understand how to be an umpire,” Miller said. “He said, ‘If you’re going to call balls and strikes, you gotta understand how this works.’ So I made a conscious effort to expand my background and try new things.”
Miller was one of the many lawyers who applied for the position before Hazel was selected. In its evaluation of Hazel and Miller during the application process early this year, the Spokane County Bar Association rated the former as exceptionally well qualified, while Miller was deemed not qualified.
Cook, who is running for a judge position for the first time in her career, opted not to be evaluated by the bar association for this election. She questioned the process that found an attorney with over 30 years of experience – one who’s argued before the Supreme Court of Washington, as was the case with Miller – as unqualified.
“I just don’t see why I would submit myself to a process that seems so arbitrary in its application,” she said.
One of the criticisms of Spokane’s Superior Court is the amount of time it takes to see a judge in civil trials – often several months and up to a year. There are several theories why this is, one being that the judges are tied up with felony cases and don’t have time to get to the civil cases, which are less important in the eyes of the law.
Hazel, who has 14 years of experience as a prosecutor and who’s been endorsed by about 35 judges in the Spokane area, said his approach to ensuring civil cases are heard in a timely manner would be to increase efficiency through proper scheduling and time management.
Since being on the bench for about two months, he said one thing he’s noticed is a good judge’s ability to establish time standards that can help free up spaces on the calendar for cases other than criminal.
“As a judge you have a lot of opportunity to influence that process,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you’re balancing between time and justice, obviously justice is the most important. But the other way you can influence that is by structuring the dockets.”
Cook believes it’s a combination of issues clogging up the court’s dockets, including the prosecutor’s “9 plus policy” that essentially removes a defense attorney’s ability to negotiate a plea deal if their client has multiple felonies.
She said if the policy were reviewed under a harsh microscope, some detractors could come to the conclusion that it’s doing more harm than good in the long run.
Miller said it’s a situation of there simply being not enough judges to handle the workload.
“I would do everything I can to try and get that extra judge added that we were approved for on a state level,” he said. “Whatever we can do to make that happen, I think we ought to be doing.”
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