Judicial candidates tend to get lost in the white noise of election season. Voters might be tempted to skip over the nonpartisan section of the ballot, or use the rudimentary tactic of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” with the hope their finger lands on the right name.
But the stakes are high when it comes to choosing the right Pierce County Superior Court judges. They adjudicate civil and criminal cases in both adult and juvenile courts, plus specialty drug, mental health and family courts, and handle appeals from lower courts. Their word is often the last.
The News Tribune Editorial Board had the opportunity to meet all candidates in the four contested seats, look over their records and collaboratively make our recommendations to voters.
For Position 8, Grant Blinn of University Place wins our endorsement. He’s been public defender, prosecutor, has experience on a local bench and comes with a long list of community involvement.
Blinn serves as judge for the combined municipal court that covers Lakewood, University Place, Steilacoom and DuPont, a position he’s held since 2014. Before that, he spent 17 years as a Pierce County deputy prosecutor. If Blinn is elected, it will be important to his success to demonstrate independence from Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.
Blinn’s focus on fairness is evident in his promotion of therapeutic courts, plus his concern over civil litigation costs and what he calls “diminishing resources for people with mental illnesses.” He’s developing a veterans’ court in Lakewood, and if elected in November, he’d like to take the program countywide.
His work with the Tacoma Police Department’s Child Abduction Response Team, where he helped draft the county’s child abuse protocol, combined with his experience in public safety — he served as a University Place fire commissioner — gives him a perspective beyond law books and legal briefs.
Blinn’s challenger, Tacoma lawyer Dwayne Christopher, is well-versed in civil, criminal, juvenile and family law. He began his career working for Judge Brian Tollefson and now seeks his open seat.
Tollefson left the the bench this year after 27 years and endorses Christopher, who served as his judicial assistant from 1998 to 2007. Christopher would have the administrative part of the job down pat, but would benefit from gaining judicial experience at a lower level, as Blinn has done.
Blinn garnered the highest rating of “exceptionally well qualified” by the Tacoma Pierce County Bar Association’s judicial qualifications committee. Christopher did not seek a rating.
For Position 17, both candidates are well-prepared to jump into the thicket of criminal and civil cases on day one, but we give a slight edge to Karena Kirkendoll of Tacoma.
Kirkendoll’s judicial experience includes industrial appeals and administrative law, but it’s her work for the last three years as a Superior Court commissioner that has girded her for the volume and variety of cases. (Commissioners handle much of the grunt work of the court, but don’t preside over jury trials.)
Her time spent in the county’s specialty courts dealing with individuals struggling with mental health and chemical dependency issues is why she advocates strongly for those courts. She says they “address the underlying cause of unlawful behavior, while ensuring offenders are held accountable for their actions.”
Both Kirkendoll and her opponent, Tom Quinlan from the Key Peninsula, were rated “exceptionally well qualified” by the bar. They were classmates at the former University of Puget Sound law school, and both previously served as bar association presidents.
The well-rounded Quinlan would also be an excellent addition to the court. He served as a part-time Superior Court commissioner as well as for local municipal courts. The military veteran was a judge advocate in the Army Reserve for 18 years and is currently practicing civil law. He speaks persuasively about the need to improve affordability and access to justice for the average working person.
But ultimately we suggest giving the robe and gavel to Kirkendoll. The full title of Superior Court judge seems the next logical step in her progression.