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Spokane County Superior Court candidate decries judicial election system her opponent embraces

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 10, 2017

Spokane County Superior Court Judge candidates Tony Hazel, left, and Jocelyn Cook. (The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Superior Court Judge candidates Tony Hazel, left, and Jocelyn Cook. (The Spokesman-Review)

The race for a Spokane County Superior Court judgeship is partly about the race itself.

Jocelyn Cook, who is vying to unseat incumbent Judge Tony Hazel in the November election, argues that the process of voting for a judge – an elected official who should be impartial and devoid of party affiliation – is a deeply flawed procedure.

“Right now, if we get judges out of the process that are smart, hardworking, dogged, in their desire to learn, and humble enough to know they don’t know everything, and brave enough to make those decisions, well that’s a happy accident,” she said recently at a candidate forum. “And it shouldn’t be. Because right now we choose judges based on who has the most signs, who has the most name recognition, most friends.”

The incumbent, who was appointed to the bench earlier this year, has run a more traditional campaign. Signs for Tony Hazel, big and small, may be the most common candidate sign in Spokane County this election season. He’s not ashamed of his campaign, and he said he’s proud of his endorsements, including those of 35 judges, four of which are on the state’s Supreme Court.

“If you look at my endorsements, you’ll see that I have overwhelming nonpartisan support,” he said Friday. “I am not partisan. I think partisanship is something that divides people and not something that brings people together.”

How judges are elected is a point Cook has come back to often during her campaign. But she’s also running on the promise to uphold the constitution, to treat all parties fairly, and to continue to learn the law and remain dogged in her desire to be humble.

She contends those points – what she believes any good judge should uphold – don’t result in the number of votes lawn signs, campaign events or canvassing can bring in. And she’s not sure they should.

“The way we elect and appoint judges is set up to create a situation where our judges are beholden to some and not others,” she said. “And I think that’s problematic.”

Hazel’s campaign work appears to have paid off so far. Since being appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May following Sam Cozza’s death in January, Hazel has been the clear front-runner in the race, garnering 51 percent of the votes in August’s primary election, as compared to Cook’s 24 percent and Scott Miller’s 23 percent.

Hazel, who has met hundreds of people while canvassing or at speaking events, says the race has been a blessing in disguise. He said the feedback he’s received has been eye-opening, especially since not only do people care deeply about public safety and law enforcement, but they can also be ill-informed about the judicial process, and where a judge fits into the mix.

“The biggest point of education I try to stress, is as judges we don’t take positions on things,” he said. “What we do is try to make a genuine assertion on what the law is and follow the law, rather than follow our own belief system or structure.”

Hazel, like Cook, is also vocal about a judge’s duty to treat people fairly – a principle he said he learned while growing up in a diverse family.

Speaking alongside Cook at the same forum Friday, Hazel acknowledged his challenger’s likening of judicial races to a popularity contest, but instead took a more optimistic viewpoint.

“I am fortunate to have a number of support from the community,” he said. “And I don’t shy away from that. I actually think it’s to my credit.”

He also reiterated his support from two separate Spokane County Bar Association panels that rated him exceptionally qualified – once when he was appointed by Inslee and again for this race. During his speech at the forum, he pointed out his challenger’s lack of willingness to participate in the process.

Cook, who’s been vocal about her disdain for the bar association’s rating system in the past, said she questions the validity of the process when an attorney such as Miller, her challenger in the primary, was rated not qualified when he applied for the judge position in January, and was later rated qualified in July.

“I just don’t see why I would submit myself to a process that seems so arbitrary in its application,” she said.

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