June 2016 Bar Bulletin
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The Passing of the Gavel

 

Most everyone else was probably focused on the Mariners the week of May 16, but I assure you that my colleagues and I were refreshing the King County Elections page on our phones as we waited for filing week to be over. On the one hand, it is exciting to know that we will have at least seven new judges bringing their talents and enthusiasm to Superior Court. On the other hand, it means saying goodbye to beloved colleagues. This month’s column is dedicated to four of them; the other three, Judge William Downing, Judge Bruce Heller and Judge Richard Eadie, were honored a couple of months ago.

When I was a young lawyer practicing in Seattle Municipal Court, I wanted more than anything else to earn the respect of Judge Ronald Kessler (who is honored this month with KCBA’s Outstanding Judge Award; please see page 14). Throughout his career, Judge Kessler has been universally respected and feared by the lawyers who appear before him. Only when I became a judge myself did I learn that he is a man of many faces. To his colleagues, Judge Kessler is generous with his time and with his expertise; he is considered the “brain trust” of criminal law in Washington. He answered all my rookie questions without making me feel stupid.

Judge Kessler has served our court as chief criminal judge for two terms, most recently from 2011–2013. He spent a year trying family law matters and left that position to try a death penalty case that went on for about a year. At that point, Judge Kessler knew he was in what would probably be his last term. Rather than sit back and try cases, he agreed to serve as the chief judge at the Maleng Regional Justice Center, a very challenging position.

Perhaps my biggest surprise about Judge Kessler was what a warm and compassionate man he is when he is off the bench. From time to time he plays the role of curmudgeon, but his sense of humor is very close to the surface. Sometimes after delivering a passionate invective about one issue or another, he will conclude by announcing: “Rant is over!” He has earned his retirement many times over, but I really am not sure what we will do without him.

We are also losing one of our most senior judges in Judge Brian Gain. For many years he was one of our quiet leaders who served as our presiding judge in 2000 and 2001, on the Board of Trustees of the Superior Court Judges Association, and for many years on the Sentencing Guidelines Commission. Judge Gain has always been a resource for his colleagues who have tough evidentiary or legal issues to discuss. His friends on our Court hold him very dear.

Judge Gain is known as someone who is able to bring parties together on the verge of trial and has resolved a great number of cases. Judge Richard McDermott, who has known Judge Gain since their days together in college, says, “Judge Gain is my idea of a thoughtful, fair, superb judge. He never sought the limelight, but always accepted difficult assignments, which he handled with great skill and class. He is someone a colleague could always go to for advice and wisdom. He will be missed.”

Judge Laura “Genie” Middaugh is a judge like no other. Who else organizes her colleagues into a kazoo band? Or quotes Nancy Drew in communications with colleagues over email? Judge Middaugh’s contributions to the judiciary and to our Court have been unheralded, but important. She was involved in setting up the daycare center at the MRJC and still donates books and toys. She helped select the art for the MRJC.

Most significantly, Judge Middaugh has worked very, very diligently for many years as chair of the State Pattern Forms Committee and a member of the State Plain Language Committee. This is tedious work and yet it matters tremendously to unrepresented parties who are unable to decipher forms written even in “clear” legalese.

What I admire most about Judge Middaugh is her ability to give voice to the “average litigant” or the “average employee.” She may not realize it, but Superior Court’s entire strategic plan grew out of comments she made when she announced she no longer wanted to serve on the Strategic Planning Committee.

She said we ought to design a plan that was relevant to average employees and that would maximize their contributions to the Court. We took those words to heart. Today scores of engaged, enthusiastic employees have been involved in designing projects to carry out the Court’s strategic agenda. In this way, Judge Middaugh’s quiet contributions will live on long past her retirement.

I’ve saved for last my rock, Judge Palmer Robinson. Judge Robinson is one of those judges to whom we all turn for good judgment. In and of itself, that says something. She is wise and yet she knows exactly when to leaven a conversation with self-deprecating humor.

I relied on her advice as my assistant presiding judge during the first year of my term and ever since as a member of our Executive Committee. She is a constant voice for the idea that “less is more,” which is almost always the right approach. She devoted unending hours to the case management system being developed by the Administrative Office of the Courts, only to (wisely) advise us that it was not up to handling the complexity of our Court.

Over the course of her almost 17 years on the Superior Court bench, Judge Robinson has served as chief criminal judge, chief of the MRJC and chief of Unified Family Court. She has been honored as Judge of the Year by the Washington Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates in 2015. As an attorney she served as the first woman president of the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers. I guess this is sort of equivalent to serving as chief civil judge. That makes her perhaps the most well-rounded judge on our bench.

Judge Robinson, like the other judges honored today, exemplifies the need for judges to serve the Court and the community in whatever capacity they are needed. Anyone aspiring to our bench should realize that it is judges like these who take on leadership roles, who are willing to get their hands dirty editing forms or analyzing software command by command, who truly promote justice in our community. They set an example to which all of us should aspire. We wish you well in the next chapter of your lives.

 


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