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Judge Kevin Korsmo retiring after 12 years on state appeals court

UPDATED: Mon., March 2, 2020

Judge Kevin Korsmo, who has served on Washington’s Court of Appeals Division III since 2008, plans to retire at the end of 2020. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Judge Kevin Korsmo, who has served on Washington’s Court of Appeals Division III since 2008, plans to retire at the end of 2020. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Kevin Korsmo handled many high-profile cases during his 18 years with the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office, but persuading jurors was not part of his job description.

Korsmo was the office’s appellate attorney, responsible for defending verdicts before Washington’s Court of Appeals Division III. In 2008, he joined the bench as a judge, and now, he’s planning for retirement.

“This is the place where errors get corrected,” Korsmo said in an interview in his chambers.

“It’s a lot more reading, a lot more writing, but frankly I got bored with trial work back in the ’80s,” he said. “I always find it a lot more fun to argue with some other judges – or to the judges, as an appellate lawyer – about what the law is or should be. It’s a lot more fun than arguing to jurors what the facts were.”

The three divisions of the Court of Appeals hear thousands of cases each year. Division III, which is based in Spokane, has the smallest number of judges but covers the largest geographic area – 20 counties in Central and Eastern Washington. The five judges preside over cases in rotating panels of three, with each judge writing about 70 opinions a year.

Korsmo was appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire. He replaced Debra Stephens when she was named to the state Supreme Court. He’s won two elections since his appointment, serving longer than any of the other Division III judges.

At 64, Korsmo said he would rather retire somewhat early than step down after voters re-elect him, leaving the governor to pick his replacement.

“I don’t want to run for a job, for a six-year term, and walk away after a year,” he said. “That’s lying.”

Two candidates already have filed to run for Korsmo’s seat: Spokane Municipal Judge Tracy Staab and local attorney Marshall Casey.

Before becoming a judge, Korsmo had spent seven years with the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office and 18 with the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office. He handled more than 2,000 appeals before Division III judges and argued more than 50 cases before the state Supreme Court.

His high-profile cases included two death-sentence appeals and the prosecution of Tom DiBartolo, the former Spokane County sheriff’s deputy who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1997.

Compared to his colleagues on the appeals court, Korsmo has been more likely to side with prosecutors and law enforcement in cases that question investigative tactics or evidence that might be considered “forbidden fruit.”

In a lengthy dissent published last month, for example, Korsmo defended the use of a search warrant that Pasco police used to uncover text messages and charge a man with soliciting a prostitute. The cellphone that police searched belonged to a different suspect – the woman’s father – who was under investigation for a different crime.

“When a felony appeal creates a novel issue or an interesting fact pattern, those have been my favorite cases,” Korsmo said. “But after a lifetime of doing felony appeals, there aren’t that many novelties. So when one comes around, it’s really exciting.”

Korsmo said he disagrees most often with Judge George Fearing, whom he’s known since law school at the University of Washington.

“We tend to disagree on our function here in terms of reviewing what a superior court judge has done. Sometimes, when you feel the judge is incorrect, it’s a question of, ‘Yeah, maybe he’s wrong, but is he within his authority to be wrong?’ ” Korsmo said.

“I tend to favor superior court discretion more, I think, than some of my colleagues. But I wouldn’t go overboard on that.”

Korsmo’s chambers reflect his fascination with science fiction. The background on his computer screen is an image of the Starship Enterprise from “Star Trek.” On his desk sits a replica of the hat worn by Gandalf, the wizard in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Korsmo also keeps a chess board in his office. He’s a longtime leader of the Spokane Chess Club and has coached chess at local high schools.

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