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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

“It’s watching life unfold in front of you:” Judge Maryann Moreno to retire after nearly 20 years on bench

Judge Maryann Moreno stands in her courtroom Thursday at the Spokane County Courthouse in front of a portrait painted by Native artist Ric Gendron. The longtime Superior Court judge will officially be done Thursday. She asked Gendron to display one of his colorful paintings in her courtroom as a contrast to the many photographic portraits of pioneer male lawyers and judges on display.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

In her nearly four-decade legal career, Maryann Moreno practiced the law from multiple perspectives – first as a public defender and defense attorney, and later as a Spokane County Superior Court judge.

“The trial work is fabulous when you have two professionals, one on each side, who understand the law and are well-prepared,” Moreno said. “Both sides being strong advocates and understanding how to put forward their case so that it’s understandable to a jury – it’s almost like watching a ballet.”

Moreno is watching her final performances ahead of her retirement on Thursday.

Moreno, 65, moved from New Jersey to Spokane to go to Gonzaga Law School in the early 1980s.

During her second week on campus, a classmate suggested to Moreno that they volunteer at the local public defender’s office.

“I wasn’t even sure what the PDs did, but there I was,” Moreno said.

She quickly fell in love with both the work and the outdoors and decided to put down roots in the region.

After law school, Moreno went to work at the public defender’s office full time. She was at the office for seven years before moving to private practice. Moreno worked on numerous notable cases, including representing former Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Tom DiBartolo, who was convicted of killing his wife.

In 2003, she was appointed to fill a Superior Court vacancy left by a retiring judge. She has won re-election every four years since.

She has become a frequently used resource for colleagues due to her depth of experience and her willingness to share her knowledge with those around her.

“Her mentorship and support helped me immeasurably as I transitioned to Superior Court,” Superior Court Judge Michelle Szambelan wrote in an email. “As a colleague, she was always willing to help our bench and often accepted some of the most difficult cases.”

Superior Court Judge Julie McKay agreed, noting Moreno could handle the toughest and most complex cases.

“The sky was never falling for her, at least that she showed from the outside,” McKay said.

Moreno’s expertise on the bench is something McKay said she will miss.

“She has done it all and seen it all and frankly done it very well,” McKay said. “I’m going to miss just knowing that I have that knowledge behind us.”

Moreno’s expertise isn’t just a credit to Spokane County but the entire state, Superior Court Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren said.

“She is frequently consulted for her expertise in criminal law and known for her commitment to criminal law reform,” Bjelkengren said.

Judge Annette Plese agreed.

“Besides the vast wealth of knowledge she shared anytime someone asked for help, we are losing a person whose work ethic was incredible,” Plese wrote in an email. “When Court Admin asks to assign additional cases or needs help, Judge Moreno didn’t know the word no.”

While Moreno may be a bastion of knowledge and experience, her transition from trial attorney to judge had a definite learning curve to it, Moreno said.

“The first thing that you have to understand is that you have to be quiet and listen,” Moreno said. “You have to just wait and listen and not interject and not talk.”

Moreno also found she often doesn’t have much information about victims and defendants ahead of sentencing.

“I feel sometimes when I’m sentencing people I’m really in the dark about really what’s happening in their lives that’s important,” she said.

One thing missing from Moreno’s courtroom is legalese. And that’s by design, Moreno said.

“I don’t use a lot of flowery terms,” Moreno said. “I don’t feel like I need to use big words in order to get my point across.”

When children come into her dark, wood-paneled courtroom, it’s often about five minutes before they’re showing signs of boredom, she said.

Speaking plainly helps keep things moving along, Moreno said. She also offers visitors to her courtroom something visually interesting to look at in the art she has selected to display.

Her most recent show stopper is a colorful painting of a Native American chief by artist Ric Gendron that stares back at the jury from across the wood-paneled room.

Her demeanor, art and straight talk are all designed to make everyone who enters her courtroom feel as comfortable being there as they can, Moreno said.

“I want them to understand that they’re welcome,” Moreno said. “They are welcome to come here anytime.”

The judicial system can be hard to navigate. While the role of a judge is widely understood, Moreno said, the behind-the-scenes work that goes into hearing a case is often overlooked.

“We sometimes make it look easier than it really is,” Moreno said.

The court is understaffed for its caseload, Moreno said.

Most judges, Moreno included, lug home motions to read every night in preparation for the weekly blitz of motion hearings scheduled each Friday.

“I don’t think people understand how much goes into the judges’ preparation for a case. We don’t have law clerks,” Moreno said. “We don’t have attorneys that do our work for us. We do it all ourselves.”

Moreno is excited to swap those motions for a good novel and enjoy a slower pace this summer.

“I want to take the summer and I want to take the fall just to relax,” Moreno said.

With a large extended family in Spokane and lots of friends, she also hopes to spend lots of time with loved ones.

Despite the exciting things on the horizon, Moreno said she’ll miss hearing cases.

“A well-done case is just magnificent,” Moreno said. “It’s watching life unfold in front of you.”