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

Court Commissioner Eric Dooyema faces Deputy Prosecutor Jenny Zappone for District Court judge seat

A Spokane County District Court commissioner faces a Spokane native who’s served in the county prosecutor’s office for more than a decade to replace a retiring District Court judge.

Eric Dooyema, 47, and Jenny Zappone, 40, are vying for the seat on the bench that will be vacated by retiring District Court Judge Donna Wilson. Dooyema has earned Wilson’s endorsement, while Zappone has been building a coalition of supporters that include local Democratic and Republican groups, law enforcement officials and members of the legal community.

Dooyema, a graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Law, has been filling in for members of the District Court as commissioner since an appointment in 2018. He’s already familiar with all types of cases that come before the District Court bench, including misdemeanor criminal matters, traffic cases, minor civil matters and cases involving veterans, those with mental health issues and driving-under-the-influence offenders, he said.

“It’s high volume. It’s a busy court,” said Dooyema, who moved to Spokane about 13 years ago with his wife. “And I really like that.”

“You’re kind of a face of the court,” he added. “A lot of the time, those folks have never been in court before.”

Zappone described district court as “the front porch of our justice system” and said judges there have the greatest opportunity to influence lives.

“All walks of people come through District Court,” she said. “They’ve made a mistake. This is where you have the greatest opportunity to really (make) change, and to really direct people to different rehabilitative programs.”

Zappone, who’s spent the past 12 years as a deputy prosecutor for the county handling property and major crimes as well as serving as a victim advocate, said as a judge she’d work to build relationships between the court and groups in the community providing assistance to those that become involved with the justice system. She mentioned groups working with the local Indigenous population, such as the American Indian Community Center, and Mujeres in Action, a local nonprofit working with Spanish-speaking survivors of domestic violence, as groups that the courts could work with and learn from.

“The role as a judge is to just be out there, and know that, ‘Hey, I’m listening to you, I know what you’re doing,’ ” Zappone said. “And maybe we can create better pathways to justice.”

In his experience as a court commissioner, covering all the dockets of the court, Dooyema said he’s tried to balance fairness with providing the public the information they need about the legal system. That can be difficult in collections cases, where one side has an attorney and the defendant may be representing themselves.

“There’s the fine line, between you want to help folks, but can’t cross that line of giving legal advice,” Dooyema said.

The job requires being welcoming to not just those members of the public entering court for the first time, but also young attorneys who are gaining experience before a judge, Dooyema said.

“I think a District Court judge has to wear a lot of hats,” he said.

Both candidates said the most frequent questions they get from the public are about their political affiliation. District judge races are nonpartisan, and Dooyema and Zappone said that is to ensure fairness. They’re also asked about rising crime rates in the city.

A judge’s main obligation is to fairness, Dooyema said.

“I get the facts, I follow the law and I make a decision where the law takes me,” Dooyema said.

Zappone, a longtime prosecutor, said she has prepared to be a fair and impartial judge in that work by considering the needs of the defendant when making charging decisions and resolving cases.

“As a prosecutor, I’m not just looking at community safety,” she said. “I am looking at making sure a defendant’s rights are being upheld.”

Both candidates spent their younger years in pursuit of speed. Zappone was an accomplished downhill alpine skier, competing for a spot on the national team in the early 2000s after attending Gonzaga Prep. Dooyema spent several years as a semiprofessional motorcycle racer before finishing his college degree in 2004.

Zappone said her decision to run was inspired by her father, John, a pioneer in roofing technology who started Zappone Manufacturing and who died in June 2020. She is second cousins with Spokane City Councilman Zack Zappone.

“He had always said, ‘Jenny, I want to see you on the bench someday,’ ” Zappone said.

Dooyema said he’s been putting himself in position to run for the position for years, filling in for judges throughout Eastern Washington, building experience and a reputation with the local legal community.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that. If you don’t want to take my word for it, trust these elected officials,” he said. “They trust me.”

Zappone was rated as exceptionally well qualified, the highest rating given, by the Spokane County Bar Association. Dooyema was rated well qualified.

Dooyema has raised $65,876 in support of his mostly self-funded campaign, according to the most recent reports to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. He’s also taken out $6,000 in loans.

Contributors include fellow Spokane County District Court candidate Deanna Crull and Spokane County District Court Judges Debra Hayes, Jennifer Fassbender and Wilson.

Dooyema’s endorsements include all members of the current Spokane County District Court bench.

Zappone has raised $49,809 in support of her campaign, according to PDC records. Her contributors include Spokane County Superior Court Judges Annette Plese, Raymond Clary and Tony Hazel, retired Spokane County Superior Court Judges Gregory Tripp and Ellen Clark, Spokane County Sheriff candidate and Deputy Sheriff John Nowels and Spokane County Commissioner candidate Kim Plese.

Zappone’s endorsements include Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, the Spokane County Republican Party, the Spokane County Young Democrats and the Spokane Regional Labor Council, among other labor organizations and political groups.

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