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Airway Heights court commissioner faces questions about qualification to hear cases

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 20, 2019

Terri Cooper is possibly the only court commissioner in the state of Washington practicing without a law degree. She serves as court commissioner in Cheney and Airway Heights, which some people question because the state requires judicial officers in cities with more than 5,000 residents to have a law degree. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Terri Cooper is possibly the only court commissioner in the state of Washington practicing without a law degree. She serves as court commissioner in Cheney and Airway Heights, which some people question because the state requires judicial officers in cities with more than 5,000 residents to have a law degree. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Terri Cooper wears a judge’s robe and makes judicial decisions in local courts in both Cheney and Airway Heights. She’s been making those legal decisions for about 16 years.

But there’s a catch. Cooper, 57, presides over all legal matters, except for jury trials, even though she doesn’t have a law degree.

Her recent appointment as a court commissioner in Airway Heights appears to violate a state law that requires any city with a population of more than 5,000 residents to appoint judicial officers who have law degrees.

“I think it makes perfect sense that people would ask how someone who does not have a law degree can be on the bench,” Cooper said. “Recently, Airway Heights decided to take advantage of economies of scale. It was reviewed by Airway Heights legal counsel and found to be solid.”

While Airway Heights officials believe they remain on solid legal footing by allowing Cooper to serve as court commissioner, recently retired Spokane County District Court Judge Vance Peterson said the plain language of state law appears put the city at risk to legal challenges that could force Airway Heights to vacate any decision Cooper makes.

“She’s very bright. She’s a high caliber legal mind,” Peterson said of Cooper. “I think she should have gone to law school.”

Peterson said it’s clear that Cooper can do the job. “But you need the credentials to make it valid,” he said.

According to state law, Washington cities must appoint an attorney to serve as municipal judge if they have a population of more than 5,000 people. The idea was that small towns could appoint lay judges if the population is too small to attract or retain attorneys.

However, the Washington Legislature gave cities a pass if the lay judge had taken and passed a qualifying examination by Jan. 1, 2003. In the case of Cooper, she took that test and passed it in 2002 before she was appointed to hear cases in Medical Lake.

In 2004, former Spokane County District Court Judge Greg Tripp hired Cooper in Cheney. In 2006, she was given full judicial authority to hear all cases except jury trials.

Peterson said he doubts that Cooper is qualified under the law because she hasn’t worked there continuously since she took the qualifying test. He said that her work violates the intent of the law because Cheney has more than 12,000 residents, far more than the 5,000 threshold.

“I don’t know whether they are setting themselves up to a class-action lawsuit,” Peterson said.

Airway Heights City Administrator Albert Tripp acknowledged that the decision to hire Cooper does not have anything to do with not being able to find an attorney who lives in Airway Heights. According to the U.S. Census, Airway Heights had 8,166 residents in 2017.

“We reviewed all of this well in advance of the actual appointment,” Albert Tripp said. “The law has not been challenged and the law is consistent with the appointment. We are quite confident in her ability to serve and quite confident that the city is facing no legal risk for having her serve.”

In January, Airway Heights brought 70-year-old Greg Tripp out of retirement to serve as Municipal Court Judge. One of his first actions was to appoint Cooper to serve as court commissioner, just like he did in Cheney.

“Nothing has changed since she was first appointed. Terri is quite a talented person,” Greg Tripp said. “It’s a matter of how you read the statute. The issue could be a legal issue that comes before me so I decline to talk about the merits of it.”

Some attorneys reached out the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts for guidance for how to proceed with the situation, said Dirk Marker, a former District Court Judge in Yakima who now serves as chief legal counsel for the AOC.

“The question in this case is whether or not Commissioner Cooper is grandfathered in because … to the best of my knowledge, she has continually served in a judicial capacity since she took that exam years ago,” Marler said.

Whether Cooper’s appointment to Airway Heights would withstand a legal challenge remains an open question.

“How cautious do you choose to be? That’s a decision that each community has to be willing to make based on its assessment of the legal landscape and its tolerance for risk,” Marler said.

In the meantime, Cooper said she intends to keep doing what she loves the most, practicing the law as a lay judge.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Washington University and in 2017 obtained an online masters degree in Business Administration from Western Governors University in Washington, she said.

“When I came to this in 1998, I didn’t really understand the court system at all,” Cooper said. “ But, I fell in love with the law and the principles of justice.”

In 2008, she started the Cheney Youth Court, which is an alternative court for youths who get traffic tickets. Instead of potential mark on their driving record, the youths face fellow youth prosecutors and youth defense attorneys who either assign community service or sentence the offender to attend a class.

“After successful completion, the ticket is dismissed so it doesn’t go on their driving record,” Cooper said. “I have a passion for restorative justice.”

Peterson, the retired judge, again reiterated that the question doesn’t surround Cooper’s job performance. It comes down to whether Airway Heights is trying to save a few dollars with an appointment that could cause them endless legal headaches in the end.

“There’s a legal argument for and a legal argument against,” Peterson said. “Good luck to them.”

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