All 22 positions on Pierce County Superior Court are up for election this year. Only four are contested. That’s a shame, because judging by the talented crop of candidates vying for two open seats in the primary election, the local legal community has a deep bench from which to draw and put incumbent judicial officers to the test.
Three people seek the Position 8 vacancy created by Judge Brian Tollefson’s retirement, while three others covet the Position 17 gavel held by the departing Judge Ron Culpepper. The four who make the best argument to go toe to toe in the general election are Grant Blinn and Dwayne Christopher for Position 8 and Karena Kirkendoll and Tom Quinlan for Position 17.
The two other contested judgeships, Positions 2 and 5, are headed straight to the November ballot.
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Blinn, 47, is the most familiar name in the field, having handled high-profile criminal cases in 17 years as a Pierce County deputy prosecutor. The University Place resident knows the court system from other angles, too. After graduating from University of Puget Sound law school, Blinn was a public defender on Whidbey Island. Since 2014 he’s administered Lakewood Municipal Court as its sole judge.
That Blinn was a favored lieutenant under embattled Prosecutor Mark Lindquist causes us some concern. A whistleblower complaint filed last year against Lindquist alleged he made Blinn the chief of a one-person homicide division to help grease Blinn’s path to the Lakewood judge post.
While the relationship between the two merits ongoing scrutiny, it doesn’t nullify Blinn’s excellent record, including helping draft the county’s child abuse protocol. Blinn says he wouldn’t condone anything that “reeks” of special access to a judge. We say these watchwords apply: Trust, but verify.
Christopher, 44, wins our other Position 8 primary endorsement. The Seattle University law school grad started as an assistant training under Tollefson for nine years, then worked as an insurance company litigator before going into private practice.
Coming full circle in Tollefson’s courtroom would make a nice story for the Tacoma resident, but what’s more relevant is the breadth of law Christopher has soaked up — civil, criminal, employment discrimination, juvenile, family law and more — that could easily fill a Superior Court calendar. An African American, he also would add diversity to a court with only two non-white judges.
Jack Hill, 66, had a laudable career looking out for indigent, drug-addicted and other down-and-out clients. He ran the county’s Department of Assigned Counsel for 26 years. But either Blinn or Christopher would fit the robe better by bringing new ideas to the bench.
More than any candidate, Kirkendoll, 54, knows what it takes to run a Superior Court courtroom because she already does. For three years, she’s tackled the unglamorous work of a Pierce County court commissioner, one of eight legal pros who hear testimony, make rulings — basically do it all except jury trials. Before that, she was a state administrative law judge and a Labor & Industries judge.
That’s quite a 10-year trajectory for Kirkendoll, the first in her family to graduate college. She has judicial knowledge and demeanor, and commands respect beyond the Tacoma Avenue courthouse. Her love of community, through thick and thin, was illustrated by her work on a 2004 citizen panel that investigated and excoriated the Tacoma Police Department after the Chief David Brame murder-suicide scandal.
Quinlan, 52, has much in common with Kirkendoll. Both are UPS law grads and former presidents of the local bar association. Both are rated exceptionally well qualified candidates by the local bar association. (None of the others in the primary have current ratings.) Both could wallpaper their chambers with endorsements from attorneys, judges and other public officials.
What distinguishes Quinlan are the hundreds of trials he’s handled at the local and federal level, including in military courts as a JAG lawyer, or Judge Advocate General. (He’s a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.) On the civilian side, the Key Peninsula resident has filled in as a municipal judge in Fife and Fircrest and as a Pierce County court commissioner.
We throw our primary election support to Kirkendoll and Quinlan over David Ladenburg, 57. The homegrown Hilltop kid admirably boot-strapped his way to be Tacoma city prosecutor and now a 13-year Tacoma Municipal Court judge, despite lacking a law degree. But running a traffic ticket and misdemeanor court gives one a limited perspective.
We also wince at Ladenburg’s double trouble before the state judicial conduct commission; he was sanctioned in 2006 and 2015 for objecting to people in his court who wore head coverings required by their religions. In America, that’s not OK.