2 indicate interest in Benton County judgeship

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 24, 2013 

The race to fill retiring Judge Craig Matheson's seat is slow-going, with state officials saying they've yet to receive any applications as the deadline nears.

However, a Kennewick attorney and a federal prosecutor have told the Herald they are filing to seek appointment to the Benton-Franklin Superior Court's soon-to-be vacant position.

Sal Mendoza Jr., who has his own law firm, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Ekstrom, who practices throughout the Eastern Washington district, are the only two known candidates -- assuming their applications are submitted by the Friday filing period.

Matheson is retiring April 30 after 26 years on the bench. He has been a Superior Court judge for 20 years.

Gov. Jay Inslee will be selecting Matheson's replacement because the judge is leaving four months into a new four-year term.

Susan Beatty, the Governor's Office legal affairs coordinator and executive assistant to general counsel, anticipates receiving last-minute filings. Often, an applicant will send an email on the deadline saying it is in the mail, she said.

Once the resumes and lengthy questionnaires are in hand, Beatty said she will not be releasing the names to the public. That has been the office policy for at least a few years, she said.

"It's just more for (the candidates) so they're comfortable with applying and putting all the information in there, and not having to worry about who else is applying and what not," Beatty told the Herald.

She also explained that she doesn't think candidates should have to worry about their current employers finding out, if the applicant is keeping it secret.

The initial round of interviews will be done by the general counsel, who then will recommend the finalists to the governor, if there are enough names.

Last week, Inslee announced that Nicholas Brown, an assistant U.S. attorney, will be his new general counsel. Brown will start March 4.

Brown's first priority will be to interview the candidates for King County Superior Court, which has had a vacant seat since November.

Beatty said the hope is to have the bicounty position appointed before Matheson leaves in two months, but added that the office will "have to play it all by ear."

Once Inslee makes his announcement, the successful candidate typically is given some time to close out his or her practice or wrap up their caseload before being sworn in.

The past two judicial appointments in Benton-Franklin Superior Court were made by Gov. Gary Locke: Judge Carrie Runge in December 2003 and Judge Cameron Mitchell six months later.

The names of the applicants and finalists were released to the Herald then, but that was under a different administration.

Though the two known applicants this time around are from the Tri-Cities, any Washington resident with a license to practice law can submit the paperwork to the Governor's Office.

Matheson has told the Herald that if Mendoza files for the seat, he will put his support behind him because he thinks it will be good for the community to have a Hispanic on the bench.

Ekstrom separately has said that even though he is applying for consideration, he thinks his friend and colleague, Mendoza, should get the appointment.

"I believe that he is the right person for that position," Ekstrom said. "I believe that when he is appointed, that I would be the next best candidate for a judge position."

Mendoza, 41, unsuccessfully ran against Bruce Spanner for a vacant Superior Court seat in 2008.

Mendoza has been a lawyer for 15 years, including a year as an assistant attorney general and a year as a deputy prosecutor in Franklin County. He also has helped out as a pro tem judge in juvenile, municipal, district and superior courts.

Mendoza helped start the Juvenile Drug Court program, has been a proponent of equal access to justice through his work with the Benton-Franklin Legal Aid Society and is a Columbia Basin College trustee.

His practice includes criminal, landlord/tenant law, divorces, adoptions, contract disputes and civil matters.

Mendoza said that breadth of experience will be helpful to him on the bench.

"I decided to apply really because I feel like I have a calling for this work," said Mendoza, adding that he's enjoyed it when serving as a pro tem judge.

He also said he believes it is important for a judge to be involved in the community and to better communicate the work they do in court.

"I think that aspect is what will strengthen the bench and our community's understanding of what it is that happens in the courtroom," he said. "It's surprising how little people know about what happens in that building."

Mendoza lives in Kennewick with his wife Mia, a lawyer, and their three children.

Ekstrom said it is important to throw his name in the hat now so when he seeks a judgeship again in the future, his interest is apparent based on the previous application.

However, Mendoza is "enormously qualified" and the right man for this job, he said.

"The bench is eventually where I want to end up, but one needs to recognize the strengths of a friend as a candidate," he added.

Ekstrom, now 43, ran a campaign in 2010 for Benton County District Court judge Position 3. He lost by 15 votes to Dan Kathren.

Ekstrom spent a half-year in private practice before going to work in the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office in 1998. He left in 2004 to work with his counterparts in Benton County for four years, during which he also spent two years as a special assistant U.S. attorney handling narcotics crimes.

He also was a team member of Superior Court's Adult Drug Court program.

In 2008, Ekstrom became a full-tiime federal prosecutor working in Richland and Yakima.

Ekstrom said he's enjoyed a career in public service and this is the next step for him in this community.

He cites his combined experience in the state and federal system and in trial courts and appellate courts, as well as his quasi-judicial duties as a prosecutor in reviewing search warrants and serving as an advocate while also assuring a defendant of their rights.

Ekstrom and his wife Aimee live in Richland with their three children.

To view the Uniform Judicial Evaluation Questionnaire and other information on the appointment process, go to www.governor.wa.gov/office/judicial.

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