Politics & Government

The court you're most likely to land in is about to get a new judge

The Pierce County Council on Tuesday will pick a new judge for District Court, filling the first such opening in six years.
The Pierce County Council on Tuesday will pick a new judge for District Court, filling the first such opening in six years.

Pierce County Council members will appoint a new District Court Judge on Tuesday (April 24), a rare process to fill a judicial vacancy and select a jurist who will earn about $160,000 annually.

The vacancy, the first such opening in six years, was triggered by the departure of long-time Judge James Heller, who announced his retirement last fall after 32 years on the bench.

Following the appointment, the new judge will face the voters in this fall's election.

District Court is a high-volume venue as a local conduit for traffic violations, small claims, misdemeanors and other services. The court's eight judges handled more than 62,000 cases in 2017, almost twice the number filed in Superior Court, the venue for criminal and major civil cases.

The vacancy allows the County Council to select from a list of four candidates recently vetted and rated by the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association. All four will be interviewed Tuesday before the council makes its final selection.

The names:

Lloyd Oaks, a deputy prosecutor for Pierce County, currently assigned to the juvenile court team. Bar association rating: well qualified.

Cynthia Chen-Weller, a defense attorney based in Milton. Bar association rating: well qualified.

Timothy Lewis, a deputy prosecutor who heads the office's major crimes division. Bar association rating: not rated. (Lewis did not participate in the vetting process because he is a former member of the judicial qualifications committee.)

Dwayne Christopher, a local attorney in private practice who handles personal injury and employment discrimination cases. Christopher spent nine years as a judicial assistant to former Superior Court Judge Brian Tollefson. Bar association rating: well qualified.

The last District Court appointment sparked low-level controversy in 2012, when local legal leaders raised concerns that Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist was lobbying for favored candidates. Those concerns led to procedural changes for vetting judicial candidates.

Two of Lindquist's staffers, Lewis and Oaks, are among the four candidates the council will interview.

According to correspondence from council Chairman Doug Richardson, council members will be permitted to ask one question apiece during Tuesday's interviews to ensure fairness. Councilwoman Pam Roach sent a note last week to Richardson, asking whether those limits could be loosened.

"Is the goal to hurry up and get it done?" Roach asked. "Or, is the idea to execute the duties and responsibilities of our offices to the fullest? Like it or not, whomever gets the appointment is set up pretty nice for a race. This is like getting an endorsement from the council."

Whether Roach will be allowed to pursue questions is unclear. The council will begin the interviews at 12:30 p.m. during a special meeting. A private executive session will follow. The council's meeting agenda includes a scheduled public vote on the appointment after that.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT