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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Federal Magistrate Judge John T. Rodgers reflects on career as he prepares to leave bench after 8 years in role

Photographs adorn the walls of John T. Rodgers’ chambers at the Thomas S. Foley Courthouse in Spokane.

Taken mostly by friends, the color and black-and-white images of nature, urban settings and everything in between offer a bit of respite after a full day of reading lawyer’s arguments on a computer, said the soon-to-be-70-year-old magistrate judge. One of his own works hangs in the lobby.

“I took it up when I was 11,” Rodgers said from his office last month. “I had a grandmother that sent us everything we wanted, and I said, please send me a camera.”

The former head of the Spokane County Public Defenders Office, and the man who’s seen most of the federal criminal defendants in Eastern Washington for the past eight years, is stepping down at the end of the month after a career in law that began in the 1970s. Rodgers, son of former Mayor David H. Rodgers, said his pursuit of criminal defense was at odds with the wishes of his dad.

“He was forever telling me I should go into the prosecutor’s office,” Rodgers said.

After obtaining degrees in business administration and English literature from the University of Washington, Rodgers attended Gonzaga Law School. While there, he began working for the public defenders, and found himself arguing before juries on behalf of defendants rather quickly.

“I did it for months and months, and nobody knew who my dad was,” he said.

“By the time I graduated law school, I had more trials than a lot of the lawyers in town,” Rodgers continued.

The stories of the defendants, and making sure they got a fair shake with a judge, was what drove Rodgers during those early years, both in public defense and in private practice.

“So much depends on a good judicial system,” he said.

In January 2003, Rodgers was selected to head the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office after spending more than a decade in private practice with Rosanna Malouf Peterson, who is a now a U.S. district court judge. Rodgers brought on W. Scott Mason as his deputy director.

“He was a very good defense attorney. He really cared about the clients,” said Mason, who first met Rodgers when he started working at the defender’s office in 1982.

Rodgers was also good to his employees, especially in lean budget years, Mason remembered. When cuts came and the office faced potential layoffs, Rodgers took a furlough – though not required to – in order to keep more people on the staff, Mason said.

“If he felt people weren’t getting the treatment they deserved, that got to him,” said Mason, who retired last year after a nearly 40-year career with the defender’s office.

Leading the office required delegation and management, Mason said, and it appeared Rodgers wanted back in the courtroom. Rodgers applied, and was appointed by the federal judges of the Eastern Washington district to serve an eight-year term beginning in 2013.

In Eastern Washington, the magistrate judge determines whether investigative agencies have authority to serve search warrants, and they listen to preliminary arguments about bail and release for criminal defendants, among other duties.

“The magistrates are the Fourth Amendment of the district,” Rodgers said.

It’s a duty and responsibility that Rodgers clearly took seriously, said Andrea George, executive director of the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington & Idaho.

“He has always been so understanding and respectful to the person in front of him, no matter what the charges are,” George said. “Perhaps that comes from his years as a public defender, or just empathy for someone who’s in a very difficult situation.”

Rodgers is the first judge a defendant will likely face, and his decisions have lasting consequences for those who’ve been indicted or face a criminal complaint. He’s the judge who decided to keep Ronald Ilg, a Spokane neonatal doctor accused of kidnapping and cyberstalking, in custody pending trial. He’s also been the first judge to read indictments against some of the district’s most notorious criminals, including those found guilty of the plot to murder a South Hill businessman over oil speculation.

Rodgers, whose brother Brian is married to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said his most vivid memory in the office will be the feeling of the importance of the job, especially when he was first appointed eight years ago.

“When you’re a judge, you’re just trying to do the right thing, to make the right call,” he said “It’s entirely different (than being an attorney). You don’t get to turn to the back of the book and see what the answers are.”

When determining whether to hold someone in jail, for example, a magistrate is really trying to “predict the future,” Rodgers said. An open mind about the ability for a defendant to seek help when released cuts costs down the road, George said, and it appeared Rodgers weighed those arguments carefully.

“He always listens to our arguments and really, seriously contemplates our release plan,” she said. “If we get someone released, that means we’re able to get them into local services, including housing, Social Security, employment training, substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling.”

On rare occasions, Rodgers presided over trials. That included a misdemeanor case involving a protester openly carrying an AK-47 on the federal courthouse steps in December 2015, when Rodgers called the protester “a man of principle” and refused to impose any jail or probation time.

Federal law allows a judge who reaches the age of 70 to continue to serve as a magistrate, with annual approval from the district judges of the district. Rodgers said it was time to step aside and allow others to put on the robe.

Rodgers’ replacement will be James Goeke, who until recently had served as deputy criminal chief in the Eastern Washington U.S. Attorney’s Office. Goeke, a graduate of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, is scheduled to take the bench Nov. 1.

After retiring from the bench, Rodgers was noncommittal on his plans, other than spending time with his wife, three children and grandchildren. He described himself as “not the most interesting jurist,” and wasn’t clear on what his legacy might be.

“I have no idea, but I hope it would be interesting,” he said.

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