Voters in the Nov. 6 election will choose between a long-time prosecutor and a private attorney with decades of experience as a temporary judge to fill an open seat on the Pierce County District Court bench.
John Sheeran, 54, has worked for 22 years as a deputy prosecutor, and says trial experience has prepared him to be a judge.
“When you try cases you develop an understanding of the rules of evidence,” he said. “That’s what sitting on the bench is all about.”
Karl Williams, 57, is a private attorney practicing mostly civil law and doing some criminal defense. He’s filled in as a pro-tem judge as needed for 22 years on the District Court and other local benches.
This is his sixth campaign for a judgeship in Pierce County since 1999. Asked what is different this election, he said:
“From a judicial standpoint, we’re just in a little bit of a different climate. People are more inclined to challenge preconceived notions about who might make a good judge. ... People are starting to be aware that a more rounded resume would definitely suit this position.”
In the August primary, Williams got 49.7 percent of the votes and Sheeran took 36.7, which sent them on to the general election for the seat held by retiring Judge Maggie Ross.
District Court judges oversee criminal misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases and civil disputes up to $100,000. They serve four-year terms, with an annual salary of about $164,000.
Ballots will start arriving Friday.
Williams said he was rated exceptionally well qualified as a judicial candidate by the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association, the Washington Women Lawyers and the Pierce County Minority Bar Association.
Sheeran said he didn’t seek ratings, because he didn’t agree with those the local bar gave others earlier this year.
“There were a number of people that they rated not qualified that were clearly qualified,” Sheeran said. “People who have been attorneys for more than a decade, tried all sorts of cases. ... I just didn’t want to take part in that, and I just didn’t think the makeup of the committee was going to give me a fair shot.”
Sheeran and Williams live in University Place, studied law at the University of Puget Sound and have ideas about how to improve District Court.
Sheeran said he wants to focus on ending the cycle of fines that can come with driving on a suspended license.
He said some people drive on a suspended license to get to work to pay their fines, and then are stopped while driving on that suspended license and are fined more.
“We’re creating holes that are impossible to get out of financially, and I don’t think we need to do that,” Sheeran said.
He also noted his experience with the local alternative court programs, such as the drug, mental health and veterans courts.
“I understand the difference between running an alternative court and running a typical court,” he said. “It’s an entirely different ballgame. You can’t have the same judicial temperament.”
He is also a fire commissioner for West Pierce Fire and Rescue.
Williams chairs the local bar association’s District/Municipal Court Liason Committee, and says he’s very familiar with the District Court and its dockets.
He said electronic home monitoring — a jail alternative that lets suspects stay employed while their cases go forward — is available only to those who can afford it.
Tacoma Municipal Court has changed that, he said, and he thinks it’s time for District Court to do the same.
In a 2009 trial Sheeran prosecuted, the convictions were overturned by the Washington State Supreme Court because of his courtroom conduct.
The high court wrote in that decision: “the prosecutor, in his closing arguments, denigrated defense counsel, misstated the burden of proof, expressed his personal belief as to one of the defendant’s veracity and whispered to the jury so that no one else in the courtroom could hear him.”
Addressing that case, Sheeran said: “10 years ago I was involved in a trial that took much longer than it should have. I was very frustrated with the fact that justice was not being served ... and I lost my temper.”
He said he’s since lectured for the State Bar Association and in the Prosecutor’s Office to try to teach others about how to avoid those mistakes.
Sheeran has raised $56,129.09 for the race, including $38,000 he contributed himself.
Williams has raised $76,948.76, $35,100 of which came from him.