January 2022 Bar Bulletin
By Randall Thomsen
Any baseball aficionado can appreciate the value of a good utility player. That player is adept at any position, broadens the bench, and brings unique knowledge and experience based on the variety of roles that the player has filled (and can fill). In a similar fashion, the new King County Superior Court Presiding Judge, Patrick Oishi, is the Court’s own utility player that should provide reassurance to members of the bar that our Court is in good hands for the upcoming 2022–23 term.
Like any good utility player, Judge Oishi has a wide variety of experience whether measured by his years as a teacher, prosecutor, civil litigator, commissioner, or judge. Judge Oishi was appointed to the King County Superior Court over a decade ago in May 2011 by Governor Christine Gregoire. He has been subsequently elected (unopposed) in 2012, 2016, and 2020.
Born and raised in Maui (Aloha!), Judge Oishi grew up in a family of five. His mom and dad were educators — an elementary teacher and superintendent respectively — so Judge Oishi developed a firm foundation in the three RRRs: “I want to say that they were reading, writing, and relaxation, but that would not be true. There was no slacking in my family when it came to school.” But despite his family’s emphasis on schooling, he nonetheless describes his early years in Hawaii as the stereotypical Hawaiian experience. While not quite Hawaii 5-0 or Magnum PI, it nonetheless did include a fair amount of time at the beach, swimming, riding waves, and enjoying the outdoors. Judge Oishi became an avid swimmer and competed all the way through high school. He reports humbly, “I really was quite average.” (Not true, I have seen him swim across Lake Chelan!) He continued his swimming career by later competing in triathlons. Judge Oishi finds swimming to be a great way to gather his thoughts. He enjoys lap swimming in pools but really enjoys open-water swimming, whether it be in Lake Washington, Lake Chelan, or Maui. But Judge Oishi has a swimming proviso: “Open-water swimming is awesome, but not when you encounter a large tiger shark. Very scary, but it sure helps you swim faster getting back to shore!”
In 1985, Judge Oishi decided to leave the islands to earn his Bachelor of Arts Degree at Seattle University. (He admits that the islands continue to call to him to return — cue soundtrack from the musical “South Pacific.”1) After college, Judge Oishi started his professional life as a junior high school teacher, teaching language arts, reading, as well as coaching various sports teams (but not baseball). “My parents left an indelible mark on me, so it seemed just a natural segue to go into teaching when I graduated.” After three years of teaching, Judge Oishi decided to change his career and pursue his lifelong goal to become a lawyer. As Judge Oishi explained: “It was a major disappointment to my parents when I left the family business of teaching, but I always dreamed of being in a courtroom.”
Graduating from Seattle University School of Law in 1996, Judge Oishi began his legal career as a prosecuting attorney with Pierce County. In his 12 years at the prosecutor’s office, Judge Oishi tried over 100 jury trials covering the entire gambit of criminal cases including homicides, sex offenses, serious assaults, and robberies. That experience was formative: “I developed a firm understanding of the difficult and, at times, soul-wrenching issues that public defenders and prosecuting attorneys face every day. I believe that experience, perhaps more than anything other, has helped me as a judge.”
With over a decade under his belt as a prosecutor, Judge Oishi decided to start the next chapter in his life by moving to a civil litigation practice where he was involved in a wide variety of disputes: “Although I did not spend a lot of time in private practice, I did develop an appreciation of the nuances of civil litigation that you can only learn by practicing, such as discovery, motion practice, and working with clients facing significant challenges. It was a nice way to round out my understanding of the law and a good complement to my criminal experience.”
In 2010, a unique opportunity arose for Judge Oishi to become the first Criminal Superior Court Commissioner in Washington. In doing so, he hit the proverbial “homerun” by covering the last base of his legal career — the judiciary. Less than two years later, Governor Gregoire called him up to the big leagues by appointing Judge Oishi to the King County Superior Court bench.
Despite over 12 years as a Commissioner and a Superior Court Judge, Judge Oishi still claims he has not seen it all, “I continue to be surprised by the wide variety of matters that make their way to our superior court. It is the continued variety of matters that come before me that makes me enjoy my work. It also keeps me on my toes because every case is unique.” Anyone that has been in front of him will attest to his patience, his inquisitiveness, and even-handedness. And, like any good utility player, he also has worn many hats during his time on the bench, “I have handled a wide array of calendars and dockets.” He has acted as the Chief Judge of the Maleng Regional Justice Center, Lead Dependency Judge, Assistant Chief Criminal Judge, Chief Criminal Judge, and Assistant Presiding Judge. Throughout, he also has held numerous leadership roles at the court and in the bar. He is a member of the Executive Committee, Education Committee, Security Committee, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and serves as Co-Chair of the King County Bar Association Diversity Committee. In the immediate future, Judge Oishi will be even further challenged as his daughter is a 2L at Georgetown Law School: “Let’s just say that I have not been winning a lot of legal arguments over the holidays.”
Now in his new role as the presiding Judge, Judge Oishi sees it as another opportunity to use his broad experience in the various facets of the legal profession to the Court’s benefit and those of the parties. He admittedly does share some trepidation in trying to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Judge Jim Rogers. “Judge Rogers had one of the most challenging tenures in recent history because of the Covid pandemic and its impact on the judicial system. I want to ensure that the mechanisms he helped put in place remain so that our court can continue to make its way through the pandemic.”
Judge Oishi says that his principal goals, along with his colleagues, are to continue addressing the backlog of serious criminal cases that are pending trial, to keep court operations at a high-level of responsiveness even with the ongoing uncertainties about new Covid-strains, continue to increase access to justice by expanding in-person and remote access, and to institutionalize many of the day-to-day practices and technological changes that the court adopted during the pandemic. “We will expand training opportunities for all judges and bailiffs, as many of the changes wrought by the pandemic are here to stay and it is important that all members of the bench have a common understanding about our business practices.” He also plans to focus on security issues in the upcoming term: “One of the most important issues is courthouse security, both in the courthouse and in the immediate vicinity. I am hopeful that through our continued work with our stakeholder partners, we can significantly improve safety so the public and our employees feel comfortable and safe in and around the courthouse. Access to justice is a critically important to all of us.”
A baseball player is perhaps not the most apt metaphor when describing a member of the superior court bench (except perhaps as an umpire?). But Judge Oishi’s experience in all areas of the law and over a decade experience on the bench mirrors that of a seasoned utility player and the King County Superior Court is bound to have a solid “season” with him as the new Presiding Judge.
Randall Thomsen is a partner at Harrigan Leyh Farmer & Thomsen LLP
1 Despite over 18 years in Hawaii, Judge Oishi claims he never has seen South Pacific. Huh?!