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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Bar Association ranks Spokane County judge candidates

Shelley Szambelan and Dennis Cronin make their statements in front of a crowd at the Coalition of Color candidate forum Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018 at Spokane Community College. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane County Bar Association has released its ratings for four candidates running for county judge positions, though two candidates took issue with the process, and one declined to participate altogether.

The ratings, based on an amalgamation of a bar panel interview process with about a dozen bar members and a bar association poll, were released to the public on Oct. 8.

In the race for Superior Court, the bar found sitting Judge Shelley Szambelan exceptionally well-qualified in both categories, and her opponent Dennis Cronin qualified in the bar poll. He “refused to participate” in the panel interview.

In the race for a District Court position, Patrick Johnson received a rating of well-qualified in both categories. Former judge Randy Brandt, who left the District Court bench in 2014 after losing his seat in an election, did not participate in either the poll or panel.

In the past, Brandt has criticized the panel’s process, saying it was unfair for sitting lawyers or former judges to analyze his work performance when many of them had never seen him on the bench.

Still, he said he planned to participate but didn’t respond soon enough to the association’s invitation. He originally thought the bar would interview and poll candidates first for the primary, and then for the general election.

The panel interviews took place in September, while the poll, run by Washington State University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology program, was sent out in July.

“There’s people who have never served as a judge evaluating someone who either is a judge or seeking to be a judge, and making a subjective determination as to whether they’re qualified or not,” Brandt said. “I don’t think there’s a fairness in the process any longer because of the need to produce something.”

Julie Griffith, president of the Spokane County Bar Association, said of the about 1,500 attorneys practicing in Spokane County, about 940 were bar members, based on last year’s count. Of those, 803 are voting members, and thus were the only ones to receive the survey. Of the 492 attorneys who accessed the survey, 342 completed it.

Cronin, too, had expressed disinterest in the panel process, even going so far as to write Griffith a letter on Aug. 16 saying he was “respectfully declining the invitation.” He said when he participated in past interviews, there were clear conflicts of interest, notably when he said a person on the panel had lost a judgment to Cronin that included monetary sanctions.

“It was sort of like, ‘What are we doing here?’ ” he said. “I certainly didn’t want to expose myself to another of those problems.”

Instead, included in his letter, he highlighted several evaluations he underwent on the west side of the state, where bar associations rated him “exceptionally well qualified” – the highest rating possible. The last time he was rated in Spokane County was last year, he said, when he applied for the position Szambelan won. He received a rating of “well qualified.”

Szambelan and Johnson said they were satisfied with the results.

Szambelan, who has been on the Superior Court bench for less than a year, said she welcomed and preferred local vetting.

“I think the panel is more in depth, because it’s a lot of work,” she said. “And I think it’s important for local people who work with you to have an opportunity to evaluate the person and how they treat people.”

Johnson, too, said, he was satisfied with the rating.

“It’s always a scary situation when you put yourself out there and you’re having other people judge you and make a decision on the merits of your ability as a lawyer,” he said. “But it worked out well and I was happy with that.”