Nine months after a failed election bid for a retiring judge’s seat, longtime defense attorney Sam Swanberg has been named to Benton-Franklin Superior Court to replace another retiring judge.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that he was appointing Swanberg to the seat currently held by Judge Vic VanderSchoor.
VanderSchoor, 64, is retiring Sept. 5 — less than a year into a new four-year term. He’s been on the bench since January 1997, and announced earlier this year that he was ready to hang up his black robe and enjoy retirement with his family.
Swanberg was one of five applicants for the judicial position. The other candidates were: Maureen Astley, Alan Tindell, Tyler Everett and Tali Sams.
“This position is about our community and not me. I am a servant of the community, not the other way around, and will always remember this truth,” said Swanberg of Pasco. “Ultimately the community will judge whether I am living up to my oath to them and vote to keep or fire me. I welcome this challenge and will always strive to exceed it.”
The applicants initially were interviewed by Inslee’s acting general counsel in the Tri-Cities last month.
Swanberg, 50, said he then was invited to Olympia to meet one-on-one with the governor on Aug. 2. He said it helped to have his wife, Stephanie, make the trip with him so she could hold his hand and help keep him “a little bit relaxed.”
“I was confident. I thought that I had the support and the background and qualifications to make me a strong candidate,” he said of the interview. “But at the same time, when you want something very badly and you’re meeting the governor for the first time, it’s a little nerve-racking.”
Inslee called Swanberg on Thursday morning and asked how the attorney was doing.
“He said he was having a great day too, and his day would be better if I would accept his offer of an appointment,” Swanberg told the Herald. “I said I would be grateful and humbled to accept it.”
Hours later once the appointment was made public, Swanberg said it was still sinking in.
“Samuel knows this community well and he is highly regarded by those who know him and work with him,” Inslee said in a prepared statement.
The seven Superior Court judges handle civil and felony criminal cases, divorces and paternity and custody issues in the two counties.
Starting Sept. 1, Superior Court judges in Washington state will make $169,187.
Swanberg initially dreamed of being a police officer, but changed career paths after an undergraduate law class at Brigham Young University.
One of his first jobs was as an intern with a large Seattle firm practicing environmental law in an office that overlooked Puget Sound.
Swanberg, who’s been licensed as an attorney for almost 25 years, moved to Franklin County in 1993 and spent three years as a deputy prosecutor before going into private practice. He said he’s tried more than 150 cases in state and federal courts in Eastern Washington.
In 2014, he applied for a Superior Court seat after Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. was nominated to the federal bench. Judge Alex Ekstrom got that appointment.
A year later, he was one of the applicants when the seventh judicial position was created in Superior court. Inslee appointed Judge Jackie Shea Brown.
I was confident. I thought that I had the support and the background and qualifications to make me a strong candidate. But at the same time, when you want something very badly and you’re meeting the governor for the first time, it’s a little nerve-racking.
Sam Swanberg, new Superior Court judge
And last November, he ran against now-Judge Joe Burrowes for Position 2, which was vacated by Judge Robert Swisher at the end of the year. Swanberg in the end got about 47 percent of the vote in the two counties.
“If you persist and keep getting back up and continuing to try, then maybe good things can happen,” he said.
Swanberg overwhelmingly topped the Benton-Franklin Bar Association poll as the first choice for judge, getting 71 out of 83 total votes from his peers.
He said he’s happy to be representing Franklin County, noting that he believes VanderSchoor was the only remaining Pasco resident on the Superior Court bench.
Swanberg has served as a judge pro tem for Pasco Municipal Court, Benton County District Court and the bicounty Juvenile Court.
Stephanie and Sam Swanberg have six children, including a son in North Carolina and a daughter serving a mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Japan. The third oldest child is expected to move out in the fall for college.
The couple also have one grandchild who is with their son on the East Coast.
The lawyer now must start winding down his practice and either resolving as many cases as he can in the best interests of his clients, or hand them off to other qualified attorneys, he said.
One of those clients is Theresa L. Wiltse, the Connell woman charged with aggravated first-degree murder for allegedly kidnapping and shooting a Kennewick accountant last November.
He said he hopes to be ready by Oct. 1, when court administration would like to have their new judge in action.
“No one gets to any point like this without great help from others, and I am no exception,” said Swanberg, who thanked his family, friends and the legal community. “I ensure each of you that I will work my hardest every day to rise above my flaws and justify your confidence and efforts made on my behalf.”
He will have to run for election in 2018 to retain the seat.