Attempting to topple a sitting judge is the road less traveled for those seeking a spot on the Pierce County Superior Court. Eighteen of the court’s 22 judges are running for re-election unopposed this year, three seats are open and only one race features an incumbent trying to keep her gavel.
There’s a reason Position 2 Judge Katherine Stolz was targeted by civil attorney Timothy Ashcraft. Stolz rates consistently low on the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association’s membership survey, certainly worse than expected for a senior judge of 16 years.
She scores lowest among all judges on the 2016 survey for showing a professional presence, exuding fairness and conveying respect to parties who appear before her.
Ashcraft sees her as vulnerable, and he’s right.
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What Stolz does well is run an efficient courtroom and issue decisions in a timely manner — no mean feat in a trial court with a per-judge caseload higher than King County’s. “I’m always working on ways to move things through the system more quickly,” the Tacoma resident told our editorial board.
The flip side is a demeanor on the bench that can come across as off-putting, unfiltered and not very judicial.
And while Stolz doesn’t lack smarts, she’s been prone to mistakes. Among the cases on her docket reversed by the state Court of Appeals were the convictions of a man found guilty of stealing 41 guns from a store, because Stolz didn’t grant a change of venue — even after it was made clear none of the man’s alleged crimes had occurred in Pierce County. The appeals court also ordered a new trial for a man convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a Tacoma cab driver, after Stolz improperly allowed evidence about the defendant’s past actions.
Stolz did not request an election-year review from the judicial qualifications committee of the bar association. Ashcraft did, and he was rated “well qualified.”
Indeed, Ashcraft shows great promise after two decades doing medical malpractice, product liability and other complex civil litigation. The Puyallup resident boasts a pedigree built at three top-notch Puget Sound law firms. In anticipation of becoming a judge, he told us: “Wanting to interpret the law correctly is always on my mind. Also, making sure the people in front of you are treated fairly and with respect.”
Pierce County residents shouldn’t settle for judges who don’t exemplify all the best virtues of the vocation, and who won’t eagerly submit to the scrutiny of the legal community. That’s why we’re endorsing Ashcraft over Stolz. His strong résumé, hard work and good principles should instill voters with confidence.
Meanwhile, the open Superior Court Position 5 seat attracted two candidates: Shelly Speir of Lakewood and Dominique Jinhong of Fircrest. We strongly recommend Speir for the post.
Few prospective judges have a background as unconventional as Speir’s, and a sense of quest is part of her appeal. She trained as a ballerina, then switched to education. While teaching at a middle school in Utah, she lost a student to gun violence — a turning point she says deepened her interest in justice, which carried her to the University of Puget Sound law school in Tacoma.
Since then, Speir has won accolades in 18 years as a personal injury attorney, including being named to Washington’s class of 2014 “Super Lawyers” in an annual list by national publisher Thomson Reuters.
Speir has handled more than 175 cases in the local courthouse, giving her a strong knowledge base and respect around the building. (Sixteen current and former Superior Court judges have endorsed her.) She’s a diligent worker ready to manage the fire hose of civil motions that could soak a rookie judge.
Both Speir and Jinhong were rated “well qualified” by the local bar association.
Like Speir, Jinhong has invested 18 years in the Puget Sound legal arena, though Jinhong’s experience is broader: special assistant U.S. attorney, deputy Thurston County prosecuting attorney, civil rights litigator and officer in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. For the past three years, she’s served as an appointed state industrial appeals judge.
But Jinhong has had episodes of poor judgment that give us pause. In 2008, she was cited for prosecutorial misconduct in a Thurston drug case that resulted in the defendant’s release. And this year, she was given a letter of rebuke by the interim Pierce Superior Court administrator after she distributed political materials in courthouse mailboxes, which violates court policy, and allegedly misrepresented the nature of her errand.
Jinhong says it was a misunderstanding. Perhaps it was. But these lapses reinforce our conclusion that Speir, the former dancer, is the right candidate to make her debut on the judicial stage.