All 4 feet 11 inches of Superior Court Judge Ellen Kalama Clark, including her thick-soled tennis shoes, walked around the corner one early morning at the Spokane County Courthouse and encountered a group of juvenile boys outside of Juvenile Court.
The boys went silent and Clark grew a little worried. The tallest boy, in a deep voice, said: “Hey, judge.”
“It was a little intimidating,” Clark said, reflecting on her encounter that occurred a decade ago. “In my calmest voice I said, ‘Yeah guys, what’s up?’ ”
The tall boy spoke up again: “I got my GED, and I’m staying out of trouble.”
“I don’t know remember his name or what he did,” Clark said. “But he did this in front of boys trying to be tough. Somebody listened and changed his life. I hope he’s gone on to bigger and better things.”
That small interaction, which lasted a few moments, will forever represent a win amid an ocean of conflict that hits like waves inside the courthouse walls. Clark stepped down on Dec. 21 at the age of 62 with two years remaining on her term.
“It just seemed like the right time to call it quits,” she said. “This job is stressful. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of sitting. I was lucky enough to be in a position where I can retire early.”
Clark lost her husband, defense attorney John Clark, in 2010. John Clark, who was 58, often represented clients without charging them for his time before he lost his battle with cancer.
In the past two years, Ellen Clark watched her colleagues, Superior Court Judges Sam Cozza and James Triplet, both die following complications from surgery. Cozza died Jan. 14, 2017, at the age of 61, and Triplet died Oct. 23 at the age of 55.
“People come to court because there is a problem, some conflict that they can’t resolve,” she said. “It affects you having to go through all that every day.”
And the job isn’t just donning a black robe and sitting on a bench that makes you appear taller. Clark said the job includes lots of nights reading cases at home, evenings and weekends interrupted by police detectives who need search warrants and the overall stress of dealing with humans who make bad decisions.
One that took a particular toll was a teenage girl who repeatedly violated the conditions of her release. The 13-year-old kept landing back in juvenile detention because she refused to comply with her mother’s wishes and court-ordered counseling.
“Eventually one night, she was out in a car with someone who was drunk or on drugs,” Clark said. “They crashed and she was killed. I did everything in my role that I could, but it still wasn’t enough to save her. Anything in this system makes you appreciate your family that other people don’t have.”
That appreciation will convert a longtime judge into a full-time grandmother.
Clark has two adult children, 33-year-old Ali Jaklitsch, who has two children; and 30-year-old Steven Clark, who handles felony cases for the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office. He and his wife, Jen, are expecting a baby soon.
“I’m excited for her,” Steven Clark said of his mother. “I really like being able to walk through court, see her in chambers and talk to her about what is going on in my day. She absolutely deserves the time off with how hard she has worked over the last 25 years.
“But I’m also very selfishly looking forward to some full-time-grandma time.”
Former colleague Tari Eitzen, who retired from the Superior Court in 2014, went to Gonzaga University School of Law with Clark. Eitzen now lives with her husband, Tim Mackin, in Hawaii.
“I’m so glad Ellen is retiring, just for selfish reasons,” Eitzen said. “It’s an incredibly stressful job. It kind of eats away you a little bit at a time. But, it’s a fabulous career. Ellen and I both loved being on the bench.”
Like Clark, Eitzen said the job offers rewards “where you find them. Even in the criminal arena, you try to put people back together to the extent that you can. Juvenile court is especially hard.”
But Clark, who often wore tennis shoes under her judge’s robe, said if she could preside over cases involving youths, she may have continued working forever.
“There you feel you can actually make a difference,” Clark said of juvenile court. “You can’t do it as easily with someone who is 40 and has been in and out of prison.”
Clark started her career on the bench as a court commissioner in 1993 and was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1999 by then-Gov. Gary Locke. Her last day on the bench was last Friday.
“I knew I would not run again in 2020,” she said. “So, do you go early? Then Steven and his wife announced they were having a baby. That was it. A sign from above.”
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.