Both candidates to replace retiring Superior Court Judge Vicki Hogan have thrown barbs at each other regarding each other’s recent campaign mailers sent to Pierce County homes.
Civil litigation attorney Shelly Speir says it was unethical for her opponent, Dominique Jinhong, to use a photo of herself in a judicial robe on a flier, and to refer to herself as a judge during the campaign.
Jinhong, a state Industrial Appeals judge, says the assertion on Speir’s mailer that Jinhong “has never handled a single case in this court” isn’t true.
Each has a point, according to court records and state guidelines on ethics in judicial campaigns.
Concerning Speir’s complaint about Jinhong’s photo, a 2014 opinion by the Washington State Supreme Court’s Ethics Advisory Committee states:
“Because a photograph for a person in a judicial robe is misleading when the person serves solely as a pro tem judge, a judicial candidate who is a judge pro tem may not be pictured in any campaign materials or communications in a robe.”
One of Jinhong’s mailers shows her wearing robes, with the words: “Dominique Jinhong is a pro-tem Fircrest Municipal Court Judge,” printed on the photo. Similar photos and captions were part of a collection of photos on her campaign website Thursday.
A pro-tem judge is someone who fills in on a temporary basis.
Jinhong argued that the 2014 ethics opinion doesn’t address photo captions, and that in this case the one on the photo kept voters from being misled about whether she’s a pro-tem judge.
“The picture was clearly labeled in large font across the middle of my torso indicating my status as a pro-tem Judge,” Jinhong said via email Thursday. “No person reading my material could have confused the caption ... to imply incumbency as a Superior Court judge or otherwise, especially when it’s clear that I am seeking election to such a position.”
Court of Appeals Judge Linda Lee, who chairs the ethics committee, said Thursday she wasn’t in a position to interpret the opinion. She said the committee is tasked with issuing opinions, but it is not its role to apply them to specific scenarios.
In addition to the robe complaint, Speir argues it’s problematic that Jinhong has referred to herself as a judge at points during the race.
A different ethics committee opinion from August stated it isn’t fair for an administrative law judge to do so in campaign communications.
Speir argues the average voter might not understand that an Industrial Appeals judge is different from a Superior Court judge.
The former, she noted, don’t hear jury trials. Instead, they hear appeals to decisions made by the state Department of Labor and Industries about workplace safety and injuries.
A Superior Court judge presides over cases such as felonies and civil disputes, among others.
“She doesn’t fall under the same set of statutes as a Superior Court judge,” Speir said of Jinhong’s role.
Jinhong said she complied with the opinion when it was released.
“In an abundance of caution, I immediately revised any material that could give the potential impression of inconsistency with this new ruling,” her email said.
The press release announcing her campaign and a similar announcement visible on her campaign website Thursday identified her as an Industrial Appeals judge in headlines, and as “Judge Jinhong” on secondary references.
As for Jinhong’s complaint about Speir’s flier, a query by the Superior Court Clerk’s Office on Wednesday showed Jinhong has been an attorney on five cases in Pierce County Superior Court.
That doesn’t include the misdemeanor cases she handled in District Court, during the year she worked for the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.
The same query done for Speir showed 161 Pierce County Superior Court cases.
Told about the results of the query, Speir said that in retrospect she’d prefer the flier specify that Jinhong does not have trial experience in Pierce County.
“If I had my way, I would probably change the word to trial,” she said. “That’s what I’ve always said in my speeches.”
Jinhong acknowledges she hasn’t had a complete trial in Pierce County, but contends it’s a good thing that she has trial experience in multiple courts, including the more than nine years she spent as a deputy prosecutor in Thurston County.
“It is deeply disheartening to see my opponent sinking to the acrimonious level of national politics,” Jinhong said in her email. “Our community deserves better, especially in a judicial race.”
Speir seems to have similar feelings about her opponent.
“I think that what’s happening right now is affecting the election,” Speir said. “I think what she has done has the potential to mislead voters, and I think it puts me at a disadvantage.”