Lawyers want a lot from a judge.
He or she must be knowledgeable but not a know-it-all, confident but not overbearing, willing to listen to arguments but firm when it comes to decision-making.
The epitome of a judge on the Pierce County Superior Court bench: Thomas Felnagle.
The 20-year jurist was judged the fairest and most competent in a recent survey of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association’s membership.
“I have always, win or lose, felt I received a fair hearing,” one lawyer told The News Tribune about Felnagle. “I do not always agree with his rulings, but I represent clients and I’m biased. He isn’t.”
Judge Frederick Fleming was at the bottom of the ratings.
Many lawyers called him ill-prepared, ignorant of the law and sometimes rude.
“It’s erratic at best,” one lawyer said of Fleming’s knowledge and demeanor. “Sometimes he gets the right result, and sometimes he’s flat-out wrong. Hard to know from one day to the next which experience you will have.”
Fleming was among a few outliers in the bar survey.
Local attorneys generally thought the members of the 22-seat bench are doing at least an adequate job and gave high marks to several judges, according to the survey results.
“The take-away is that, overall, there’s general confidence that our judges are doing a good job, they’re responsive to the public’s needs, they’re good public servants,” said Thomas Quinlan, president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association.
This year’s survey was the second time the local bar evaluated the performance of the county’s Superior Court judges and the third time since 2004 an entity has done so. The News Tribune conducted its own survey eight years ago.
Similar results emerged from all three surveys: A handful of judges were deemed outstanding, a few were rated as lacking, with the rest landing somewhere between those two extremes but skewing positive.
The county’s Superior Court judges preside over felony criminal cases, divorces and high-dollar civil disputes, among other duties. They make about $150,000 per year, with county taxpayers picking up half the tab and state taxpayers the rest.
All 22 judicial positions are on the Aug. 7 primary ballot. Two current judges – Rosanne Buckner and Frederick Fleming – are retiring. The 20 other judges are seeking re-election. Four of them face challenges.
Quinlan said the bar embarked on the evaluation process again this year because “local judicial elections deserve our collective serious attention and thought.”
“One in three Pierce County residents will have direct contact with our local judicial system in 2012 as a party, a witness, a juror or a visitor,” Quinlan said. “Other than the sheriff, I am confident that no executive department can say that it has more face-to-face time with Pierce County citizens more than the judicial branch of government.”
John Miller, a local attorney who helped coordinate the bar association’s 2008 judicial survey, agreed the review is helpful.
“I think generally it’s a good thing,” Miller said. “Judges need to be reminded what the attorneys who appear before them think. It’s a tool for them to get better.”
The results sometimes are used as a tool for candidates seeking to unseat incumbent judges.
Michael Hecht ousted incumbent Judge Sergio Armijo in 2008, campaigning in part on the fact Armijo fared poorly in the 2004 and 2008 judicial performance surveys. Hecht later resigned after a jury convicted him of felony harassment and patronizing a prostitute.
Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said Hecht’s win showed the power of the survey results and might have contributed to the number of incumbent judges being challenged in this year’s election. Four sitting judges face opposition, the most since 2004 when four others were challenged.
“Hecht beat Armijo four years ago, showing incumbent judges are vulnerable, especially if they do poorly on the judicial survey,” Lindquist said.
Presiding Judge Bryan Chushcoff said he generally believes such evaluations can be useful to voters and the judges themselves if done fairly and correctly.
“The people I work with are highly motivated folks trying to do the best job they can,” Chushcoff said.
Not everyone thinks the surveys are productive.
“In general, all of us work hard to do justice, follow the law and make difficult decisions for our citizens,” Superior Court Judge John McCarthy told The News Tribune. “It is somewhat misleading to represent that public evaluations, which compare and contrast us and set a ranking order, provide a true picture of the performance of an individual judge.”
The 2012 survey polled the bar association’s more than 1,500 members about each judge’s legal ability, integrity and impartiality, professionalism and overall ability.
On five questions, survey participants were asked to rate judges using a scale of excellent, very good, acceptable, poor and unacceptable on their knowledge of criminal law, their knowledge of civil law, appearance of fairness, respect for the parties who appear before them and respect for attorneys.
On two questions, they were asked to answer with a yes or no: 1) Would you vote to re-elect this judge if running against an opponent that the Pierce County Judicial Qualification Committee rated as qualified? 2) Do you have confidence this judge will fairly and competently handle your case?
Four hundred seventy-eight attorneys participated in rating the judges, and 440 answered the yes-no questions.
The survey was open from Jan. 2 to March 16. The bar association published the results on its website earlier this year.
Chushcoff quibbled a bit with the way the rankings were scored but took specific issue with the re-election question. People vote for candidates for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with their competence, he said, including friendships, political affiliations and old-school ties.
“That question doesn’t tell the voter anything about the qualifications of the judge and really doesn’t provide much by way of feedback for the judge,” he said. “It doesn’t really give us anything to work with as far as becoming better judges.”
In the past, some of the judges have grumbled about the fact that attorneys were able to include anonymous comments about them.
This year, the bar association decided to forego comments, Quinlan said.
Comments do nothing to enhance the scientific validity of the survey results and could be unfairly used as ammunition by candidates seeking to unseat incumbent judges, he said.
The News Tribune separately sought out anonymous comments from lawyers working in the Pierce County area, believing they would add context to why lawyers rated judges the way they did. Some of those comments appear in this story and in the accompanying grid summarizing the judges’ performances.
The newspaper shared the comments with the judges and sought their responses as well. The judges’ remarks are on the accompanying grid.
MOST RATED HIGH
None of the judges got a perfect score in the 2012 survey, and each received at least a few derogatory comments from lawyers.
The judges who got good marks were cited for knowing the law, running their courtrooms efficiently, showing flexibility and treating everyone – from litigants to attorneys to staff – with respect.
Judges James Orlando, Susan Serko, Frank Cuthbertson and newcomers to the bench Edmund Murphy and Elizabeth Martin joined Felnagle in the upper tier.
More than 90 percent of survey respondents said they would re-elect each of those judges, and their marks for fairly and competently handling cases also were in the 90s.
“Excellent, very respectful to all who appear in her courtroom and always pleasant to appear before, even if you lose your motion or hearing,” one attorney told The News Tribune about Serko.
Martin, appointed to the bench two years ago, was praised for making tough calls but using a gentle touch.
“I recently had a very difficult case in front of her in which the law went against what emotion would rule,” one lawyer said. “She was not afraid to make the tough decision and follow the law.”
Judges got dinged for being ignorant of the law, wasting attorney’s time by being late to court and having poor demeanors.
As they have in past surveys, Judges Kathryn Nelson and Beverly Grant joined Fleming at the bottom of the ratings.
One lawyer said Nelson, who is being opposed by local attorney James Schoenberger Jr., is “limited, confusing, unprepared.”
“You could have her on an issue one week and the next week on the same issue get a different ruling,” the attorney said.
Another said she was “good” but “could use improvement.”
“She should give all litigants (or attorneys) the opportunity to make their argument (within reason) without interruption,” the attorney said.
Nelson took the evaluation in stride.
“The opportunity to be evaluated is always beneficial when you receive both affirmation and suggestions to better facilitate justice,” she told The News Tribune.
Despite her low rating, Judge Grant, who is being opposed by deputy prosecutor Gerald Costello, did have her supporters.
“She tries hard,” one lawyer said, “and has a good basic sense of right and wrong.”
Only 31.4 percent of the lawyers said they would vote to re-elect Fleming. That was the lowest percentage among all the judges.
“He comes to work late. He takes long breaks. He is inefficient and does not apply the law correctly,” one lawyer said.
Not that it matters. Fleming is not seeking re-election.