The Pierce County Council reversed itself Tuesday and added County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist to a panel that fills judicial vacancies, overriding objections from the legal community.
Council member Roger Bush, R-Frederickson, changed his vote, pushing through changes that fell one vote short a week ago.
Bush said he mistakenly voted no on Nov. 6.
“It was an error,” Bush said. “I should have voted the other way. I was distracted or not on target, and you can make an error.”
Bush said he favors the prosecutor being on a committee that vets candidates for District Court vacancies.
“I disagree with those that claim that this is the prosecuting attorney moving in to take over,” Bush said. “He doesn’t make the decision who gets to be judges. The council does.”
A proposal from council member Stan Flemming, R-University Place, to alter the appointment process failed by a vote of 4-3 last week. The measure required a supermajority of five votes.
The council voted 5-2 Tuesday to adopt the same changes recommended by Flemming. Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, and Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, voted no again.
The changes are meaningful because for the first time since 2003, the council is due to appoint a District Court judge; the positions are typically elected. The council must fill the seat being vacated by Judge Jack Nevin, who’s moving to Superior Court.
Lindquist praised the council’s decision Tuesday.
“The council put the public interest first and wisely chose a committee that reflects its commitment to a balanced and fair vetting process,” Lindquist said. “What matters most is that our community be well served by the selection of a hard-working, knowledgeable judge who is dedicated to public service.”
When the council proposed changing the process last month, it alarmed the local legal community. Until now, the council has relied on an ad-hoc committee to vet potential candidates for judicial appointments. The members of that committee included two members from the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association and one member from the Pierce County Minority Bar Association.
The first proposal subtracted those three while adding the county prosecutor and the county’s chief public defender, Michael Kawamura.
Flemming’s version restored one representative from each of the two bar associations while retaining the prosecutor and eliminating the public defender.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Fircrest attorney Joan Mell, who opposed the changes, said it wasn’t fair to the public to reconsider changing the committee without discussion.
Tacoma defense attorney Les Tolzin also said he opposed adding the prosecutor and cited the need to preserve the independence of judges.
“The bill was killed,” Tolzin said. “Now here it is again.”
Former County Council member Harold Moss also opposed the changes and said afterward that Lindquist’s presence on the panel will violate “the appearance of fairness.”
“The prosecutor should not be selecting judges before whom his staff appears,” Moss said. “In effect, you’ve got the prosecutor picking the judges.”
“All of the committee members, except for the citizen representative, are lawyers with divergent experiences and biases,” he said later, “but I’m confident they will work together for the good of the community.”
Bush said the current process is weighted toward defense attorneys because two members come from the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association.
“I think it’s skewed really badly now,” Bush said before the meeting. “It has a definite sense of unfairness.”
Council members made no comments before taking their votes – one to reconsider as moved by Bush and one to approve. Both votes were 5-2, with McDonald and Talbert voting no.
Last week, Bush voted initially to amend the ordinance with Flemming’s proposal. Then he voted against the amended proposal.
Several speakers opposed the changes before the initial vote last week. Some were critical of the role the prosecutor’s office would play.
Nevin, the judge whose departure will create the vacancy, said last Tuesday that he and his fellow judges prefer the current system.
The final ordinance calls for the committee to review all applications and rank judicial candidates by priority. While the council gets the entire list, the committee also is charged with selecting no more than five candidates for each judicial vacancy.Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647