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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Questions of rule violations trail Spokane County District Court judge candidate signs

A campaign sign for Randy Brandt is seen on Monday, July 16, 2018, in Hillyard, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Randy Brandt used to be a judge, but hasn’t served in the position for nearly four years.

So can he call himself a judge on his campaign literature in a new bid for the bench?

His opponent says that doing so is misleading and violates judicial ethics. But Brandt argues his material properly showcases his experience.

“Elect Judge Randy Brandt,” read signs posted around the county. On his website, numerous references to the candidate as a judge, such as “Vote Judge Randy Brandt,” appear on the site’s upper ribbon. “About Judge Randy Brandt” tops the home page.

The problem, his opponents and officials say, is that Brandt isn’t a judge.

“As soon as the signs went up, my phone was lighting up with people telling me they can’t believe what he did,” said Patrick Johnson, who is running against Brandt for Spokane County District Court Position 1. “It says Judge Randy Brandt. It doesn’t say former judge.”

Lynden Smithson, another opponent in the three-way race on the primary election ballot next month, said he also was made aware of the signs but wasn’t “super concerned.”

“I’m friends with Randy Brandt,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily going to call in and make a complaint.”

The Washington Code of Judicial Conduct, which applies to both sitting judges and candidates, states that all judicial candidates must not “knowingly, or with reckless disregard for the truth, make any false or misleading statement.” Further, the rules state candidates must refrain from making statements that “omit facts necessary to make the communication considered as a whole not materially misleading.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, Brandt expressed surprise on learning he might be in violation of state rules, saying he wasn’t aware they applied to candidates during elections. Appointed in 2011 as a Spokane County District Court judge for about three years before losing his seat to Aimee Maurer in 2014, he said he knew the canons backward and forward, but didn’t consider them when choosing to reuse the signs he printed four years ago.

“I thought I did everything right,” he said.

After reading through the edict in more detail, he said he wasn’t convinced it applied to his situation. Altogether, he said, he thought the complaint was an attempt to “distract voters from the fact that I’m the only judicially experienced candidate.”

“This is just a distraction,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Reiko Callner, executive director of the Judicial Conduct Commission – which handles disciplining judges found to be in violation of rules – said there have been cases where the state’s Ethics Advisory Committee has decided similar instances of campaign signs having misleading information.

She pointed to two cases: One in 2014, when a candidate who was not a judge but in the past served as a judge pro tem – or temporary judge – placed the term underneath their name on electronic campaign communications and posed in campaign photos wearing judicial robes.

Another case arose in 2016, when a candidate for Superior Court – an industrial appeals judge with the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals, though not a sitting judge on any court – used the title “judge” in front of their name in campaign communications.

In both instances, the ethics panel ruled the candidates were unfairly and inaccurately misleading and in violation of the judicial canons.

The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, which regulates the types of language candidates can include in election materials, did not have an opinion on Brandt using “Judge” on his signs, only that he could not say “retain” or “re-elect.”

Brandt said he worked with the commission closely to ensure he was in compliance even before he decided to reuse his old signs, and checked in often as added assurance.

“One of the things that the Public Disclosure Commission said was once a senator, always a senator,” he said. “Once a congressperson, always a congressperson. And once a judge, always a judge.”

Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute at Washington State University, an organization that offers public affairs education and research on politics and public affairs, said rules limiting candidates from swaying voters’ opinions with information that suggests they might be an incumbent were important because many people in the ballot box vote on name recognition alone.

He said in the case of district court judge elections specifically, which are down the ballot and nonpartisan, incumbency is even more paramount to winning in November.

“If you can gain an advantage by advertising yourself as a judge, there probably is some impact there,” he said. “When you don’t have a D or an R next to your name, the voters lack information. The incumbency has even greater advantage.”

Whether Brandt will be found to be in violation of rules depends on whether he wins, explained Callner.

If he’s victorious, the Judicial Conduct Commission likely will investigate, and if a violation is found, he will be subject to three levels of sanctions – the worst being suspension from office, which is rare.

If he loses the race, the Washington Bar Association would take over an inquiry.

Brandt, who said he’s put up about 500 signs so far, said he isn’t opposed to the idea of changing the wording if required. But he said a more pressing issue was that about 70 of his signs have been defaced, stolen or knocked over, even on people’s personal property.

“It’s a distraction,” he said. “It takes time and energy. It’s a never-ending distraction.”