April 30 is shaping up to be a monumental day for Judge Craig Matheson.
Not only will he pass the proverbial gavel to his successor as president of the Superior Court Judges Association of Washington, but Benton-Franklin Superior Court's longest-serving judge also will permanently swap his black robe for a pair of aviator glasses, and bid farewell to what many in the legal community are calling a distinguished and balanced career.
Matheson will retire after a total 26 years on the bench -- 20 in Superior Court and six prior to that with Benton County District Court.
The avid pilot has no big plans, but says he is ready for a break.
"I've done what I've wanted to do," Matheson, 62, told the Herald on Monday. "Internally, I've been real engaged in our court administration, have re-worked the family law section and civil, and this last year have been working real hard trying to streamline the criminal side."
"I've been doing it 26 years. It was just time for me to look for something new to do," he added. "I will take a year off, then pick something else to do."
He made it official Jan. 23 with a resignation letter to Gov. Jay Inslee.
Matheson's decision to leave just four months into another four-year term means Inslee must appoint a new judge. That person will face election in November to retain the seat.
The Governor's Office already has put out the call for "interested and qualified" applicants, and the Benton Franklin Counties Bar Association is trying to spread the word to its members. The filing period closes March 1.
The last two judicial appointments in the bicounty court were made by Gov. Gary Locke: Judge Carrie Runge in December 2003 and Judge Cameron Mitchell six months later.
Superior Court Administrator Pat Austin, who's worked for Matheson for almost 15 years, said his departure will create a large void on the bench.
As the senior judge, everybody looks up to his experience and expertise, Austin said. That is complemented by his status with the Superior Court Judges Association, where he represents all of his colleagues statewide while also looking out for the east side, she said.
Judge Vic VanderSchoor, who was elected to the bench in 1996, said while his colleagues are saddened by Matheson's pending retirement, they're happy for him that he has decided it is time.
"I think it's unanimous that all of us consider him a very, very informed and fair judge, and hard working, and we're going to miss him," he said.
A Pasco native, Matheson said he didn't intend to leave the court in a bind by departing after he started a new term. He had planned to retire when his term ran out at the end of 2012.
However, when the state association asked if he would accept a nomination to president-elect, Matheson knew the two-year commitment meant staying on the bench into 2013. The presidency was a job that had long held his interest.
Matheson ran for Superior Court re-election last August without any challengers and won another term.
A 1969 graduate of Kennewick High School, Matheson earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University in Chicago and a law degree from Gonzaga Law School in Spokane.
He worked as a Benton County deputy prosecutor from 1976-78, spent six years in private practice with his brother, John, and was a staff attorney with the Washington Public Power Supply System when he was appointed to District Court in 1987.
Matheson won election in 1993 to fill the Superior Court seat left vacant by the death of longtime Judge Al Yencopal.
Over his career, the Washington state Supreme Court has recognized him as one of 20 judges who was improving the judicial system.
He also was named "Judge of the Year" in 2002 by the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, which now is the Washington State Association for Justice.
He was nominated for that honor by several lawyers involved in the Finley School District case stemming from an October 1998 E. coli bacteria outbreak at an elementary school -- a case that Matheson lists in his top 10 memorable ones.
The list also includes a few murder cases, a medical malpractice trial, legal actions against government agencies and the 2005 recall petition of Spokane Mayor Jim West, which Matheson decided should go the voters after listening to legal arguments.
He is proud of his work in recent years on caseload management with domestic, civil and criminal matters.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," Matheson said. Under his scheduling programs, "people actually have a day in court. I'm really pleased that you can get in here and get your cases heard in a reasonable amount of time."
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller credits Matheson with taking on "a thankless task" by volunteering to handle three criminal dockets a week. Miller liked that Matheson always was able to strike a balance and maintain control of the courtroom, while also treating everybody with courtesy and respect.
Chris Mertens agreed, saying he knew his clients would get a fair hearing before Matheson even if he didn't like the judge's decision.
"I've always viewed Judge Matheson as a judge who just respected the system, respected our judiciary and the rights of all parties to come to court and to have their disputes settled under our jury and justice system," said the Kennewick attorney.
Jeff Sperline, president of the local bar association, said the judge will always hold a place near and dear to him. His father, Judge Evan Sperline of Grant County Superior Court, and Matheson presided over his swearing-in ceremony in 1994.
"He was to me always judicial in demeanor and fair and gave you reasons for what he was doing, and that's all as far as I'm concerned in practicing law, am looking for in any judge. He fit the bill," he said.
Once he is well-rested and relaxed, Matheson said he will consider spending his retirement years doing mediation and real estate investing. He also will re-activate his license to practice law.
But first he wants to spend the year catching up on household chores, hitting the gym a little more, visiting daughter Michelle in Seattle and son Doug in Los Angeles, flying to a week-long aviation trade show in Wisconsin and watching fireworks over the nation's capital this Fourth of July.
Kennewick lawyer Sal Mendoza Jr. said Matheson has been an amazing judge and his successor will have big shoes to fill.
"He's got that common sense in his decision-making. I think he approaches it certainly from the view of the law ... Not being snowed by people appearing before you but really making a decision based on what he thinks is right," he said.
Mendoza said he has submitted his application for the open judgeship because he sees it as an "incredible opportunity to help in a position where you can effect important change." He unsuccessfully ran for a vacant seat in 2008.
Matheson separately 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.
Candidates will be interviewed by the governor's general counsel, with finalists going directly before Inslee for a personal interview.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; email@example.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer