The race to replace Judge Patrick O’Malley on the Pierce County District Court bench pits three veterans of the local legal system against each other.
Karl Williams, Sandra Allen and Jeanette Lineberry all tout their legal experience – nearly 70 years combined – as reasons to vote for them. All three have worked as judges, at least on a fill-in basis.
The winner gets a four-year term with an annual salary of about $140,000. He or she would oversee criminal misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases and civil disputes with a value of less than $75,000 that originate in the unincorporated areas of the county.
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If Williams’ name is familiar, it might be because he’s run for judge before.
He was a candidate for Superior Court in 2000, and this will be the third time he’s run for District Court, having unsuccessfully sought a seat in 2002 and 2010. He also sought appointment to the District Court bench last year but was among those passed over when the County Council appointed former deputy prosecutor Kevin McCann to an open seat.
Williams said his 27 years as a lawyer, his 18 years serving as a pro-tem District Court judge and his minority status make him uniquely qualified for the bench. Williams is black.
“You need to take a look at the whole person,” he said.
Improving access to justice for the mentally ill and the poor would be two of his top priorities if elected, Williams said.
He said he supports a plan to hire a specially trained probation officer who would help mentally ill defendants get services and support outside the court system. That could help slow down “the revolving door” of mentally ill defendants who cycle through court, Williams said.
Williams said he also supports finding a way to extend alternatives to detention for low-income people who otherwise would be in jail either serving their sentences or awaiting trial.
Electronic home monitoring is available to defendants who have the ability to pay for it, Williams said, but many people can’t afford it and find themselves stuck in jail. That’s inherently discriminatory, he said.
District Court should investigate ways to make electronic home monitoring available to more people, including by championing legislation that would encourage private companies who provide the service to make it more readily available, possibly through a sliding-scale payment system.
“Typically, these individuals are not a threat. It would be better if they were working and not sitting up in the jail burning through the taxpayers’ money,” Williams said.
Williams also said it’s time for a minority face on the District Court bench.
“District Court should reflect the diversity of the community it serves,” said the former president of the Pierce County Minority Bar Association. “Some people think you must sacrifice qualifications to make that happen, but I’ve worked very hard to be qualified so that wouldn’t be a part of the discussion.”
As a college student in Ellensburg, Allen would attend court for fun. Decades later, she does it for a living.
Allen currently serves as judge for the Ruston and Milton municipal courts, a job she’s held for 11 years in Ruston and eight in Milton.
She said her experience on those benches would allow her “to hit the ground running” if she’s elected to replace O’Malley.
“I think I have the experience to come in and immediately make an impact without any transition,” Allen said. “I’ve presided over 50 jury trials as a sitting judge. I think that experience is invaluable.”
Like Williams, Allen also identified finding help for mentally ill defendants as one of her top priorities if elected.
“We need to get better treatment for people with mental health issues and also our veterans,” she said. “I don’t think we’re handling those issues statewide or Pierce County-wide as we should.”
Allen said she supports setting up a veterans court or working with other county leaders to create a position in the probation department that would specialize in helping mentally ill defendants and veterans navigate the court process and get the services and treatment they need.
She said she realizes such a position would cost extra money but believes it could make a real difference in helping keep some folks out of court and jail.
Allen also supports making alternatives to detention available for more people and points to the fact that Ruston and Milton help pay the costs of pre-trial release for qualified defendants, regardless of their ability to pay.
“I think it is important that we treat like defendants the same way,” Allen said.
She also said she would bring a hard-nosed approach like the one she employs in municipal court for District Court defendants who did not abide by her court orders.
“I set goals for them to accomplish and tell them exactly what will happen if they violate,” Allen said. “If they do violate, I immediately impose those sanctions. The next time they violate, it doubles. I’ve seen a significant increase in compliance with my court orders.”
Lineberry has the fewest years of experience in the bunch, but she’s no neophyte.
She’s worked as a felony prosecutor, a civil attorney, a domestic-violence victim legal advocate and a fill-in judge since graduating from law school in 1999.
Lineberry also stepped in to run her husband’s law practice when he deployed to Iraq with the Washington National Guard some time back. She called the experience “a sacrifice we’re proud of.”
Those jobs have given her “a unique breadth of experience” and the temperament to be a successful judge, Lineberry said.
“I’ve seen cases from every angle,” she said.
Her work at the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center as a legal advocate has shown her the importance of educating people about the legal system and how to navigate it, Lineberry said.
Improving people’s access to the court through technology and other services would be a top priority if she’s elected, she said.
That might include getting more District Court records and forms online, so working people with cases in the court could access the necessary documentation without having to make a trip to the courthouse.
Lineberry also suggested using text messaging or email to alert defendants to upcoming court dates. It makes sense for people to appear in court rather than miss a date and wind up with a warrant, she said.
Setting up a “one-stop shop” resource center like the one at the King County Courthouse where people could access help from state social workers, housing advocates and other service providers also might be a good idea, Lineberry said.
That includes people with mental health troubles and veterans who find themselves in the legal system when often what they need most is help, Lineberry said.
“I know resources are always an issue,” she said, “but we need to improve the way we connect people with services.”