Four Tri-City lawyers have applied to be the next Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge.
The governor's general counsel was in town Friday to interview the candidates on the same day former Superior Court Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. was officially sworn in to the federal bench.
Gov. Jay Inslee will appoint Mendoza's replacement, because the jurist was nominated for the federal bench a half-year into his four-year term. The bicounty bench has five other judges and three court commissioners.
Mendoza left once he was confirmed as a U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Washington.
On Friday, Nicholas Brown met separately with Alex Ekstrom, Pamela Peterson, Ted Sams and Sam Swanberg about their interest in donning a black robe.
Ekstrom, 44, of Richland, is an assistant U.S. attorney who practices throughout the Eastern Washington district.
Peterson, 57, of Pasco, is in private practice but also has a contract with the state Office of Public Defense to represent parents whose children have been placed in foster care.
Sams, 52, of Benton City, works for Adult Protective Services under the state Department of Social and Health Services, and has a part-time private practice on the side.
Swanberg, 47, of Pasco, has operated his own law firm for 16 years and holds a public defense contract for Benton County Superior Court.
After the governor's office conducts reference checks, Brown will make a recommendation to Inslee, who will hold final interviews in Olympia.
Inslee isn't expected to make a decision until the middle of September because he is out of the office for most of August, said Susan Beatty, the governor's legal affairs coordinator.
The new judge will have to run in the 2015 general election to keep the seat, Beatty said.
A Benton Franklin Counties Bar Association poll returned 33 votes in favor of Ekstrom, with 15 for Swanberg, nine for Peterson and none for Sams.
Ekstrom applied for Judge Craig Matheson's open seat in March 2013, but put his support behind friend and colleague Mendoza for the appointment.
Ekstrom is trying again because he believes he's a good candidate for the position, he said. Through his career he's developed a sensitivity to the many things that bring people before the court.
"I believe that I have the experience that matters to do the important job and continue my service to the community," he said. "I see (this office) as a continuation of my career in public service."
Ekstrom spent about eight years of his childhood in the Tri-Cities before his family moved to the San Juan Islands.
He graduated from the University of Washington with his law degree in 1997 and was in private practice for half a year before going to work in the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office. 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.
And in 2008, Ekstrom became a full-time federal prosecutor working primarily in Richland and Yakima.
He ran a campaign in 2010 for Benton County District Court judge Position 3, and lost by 15 votes to Dan Kathren.
Ekstrom and his wife have three children.
Peterson started her career path in education because she enjoyed working with children. She got bachelor's and master's degrees from Central Washington University and went on to be a reading specialist and fourth-grade teacher for 13 years.
She was working on her second master's degree when she took an education law class and knew then she really wanted to be a lawyer. She graduated from Willamette University College of Law in 1997, passed the bar exam in Oregon, then got her license in Washington and was hired by the Attorney General's Office.
Peterson was with the Kennewick office for 11 years handling Child Protective Services and Department of Labor & Industries cases, then for three years was a shareholder in a Richland law firm before going out on her own.
Her contract for dependency matters allows her a little time to do pro bono work on some family law cases, and also serve when needed as a pro tem judge in Pasco Municipal Court and Superior Court for domestic settlement conferences and truancy and juvenile offender dockets.
Peterson has had judicial dreams for about five or six years, but she wanted to make sure she devoted enough of her work to practical law before seeking office.
"I feel like I bring something a little bit different because of my life experience, but also because I worked in both the public sector and the private sector and I think that makes a difference," said Peterson, who was raised on a wheat farm near Windust Park. "I learned very early in life to have a very strong work ethic and that has really carried me through to my current career, definitely."
She would advocate for a Mental Health Court that would be therapeutic yet hold individuals accountable, and for the return of the Family Dependency Treatment Court, she said.
Peterson is married, and has an adult stepson.
The main focus of Sams' legal work is representing the state at an administrative hearing when there has been a finding of abuse against a vulnerable adult.
When not handling Adult Protective Services cases, he takes on some civil, family law and consumer law matters, and guardianships. That also allows him time to handle pro bono work, he said.
A Gonzaga University School of Law graduate, Sams has been practicing for about 13 years, he said. He started in Spokane with his own law firm, then was a deputy prosecutor in Adams County before moving to the Tri-Cities about six years ago.
Sams served in the Army after high school. His first career was as a nurse and respiratory therapist, then in his mid-30s he was motivated to go to law school.
"I've always been in the mind frame of wanting to help people," he said.
As his career has progressed, he has looked more toward being a judge, he said. He applied in March 2013 for the vacant Superior Court seat that ultimately went to Mendoza.
"It's a lot of responsibility and I think if someone is going to be in that position, they should be pretty well advised in all areas of law," Sams said.
The Superior Court judges do a good job but are working on limited resources, he said.
"I've always been the type where I think that a judge, they could always do more," he added. "I would just try to be proactive and make sure everyone has access to the courts. I think as a judge I would encourage a lot more volunteer work by other attorneys and pro bono work, like I've been doing."
Swanberg got his license in 1992 after graduating from Brigham Young University.
A Seattle native, he completed one semester of post-graduate work for environmental law at University of Washington before deciding the policy portion of it was too mundane. He took a job in April 1993 with the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office and spent one year on juvenile matters and two years in the adult felony division.
Swanberg went into private practice in 1996 and since then has focused three-quarters of his work on criminal cases and the rest on family law. He represented indigent defendants in Franklin County District Court for two years, then signed a contract in 1998 for Superior Court, first in Franklin County and since 2008 in Benton County.
"I like criminal law and I like working with people who I feel are at a disadvantaged position because of their economic status," he said.
Swanberg has served as a pro tem judge in Benton County District Court, Pasco Municipal Court and the bicounty Juvenile Court.
He has never run for office or sought appointment to a position, but said he has enough experience and the time is right to throw his hat in the ring.
"I feel like I've been doing this long enough ... and hopefully I have garnered a little bit of wisdom along the way, that I feel I could do the job," Swanberg said.
The bench comprises exceptionally qualified judges, said Swanberg, who doesn't think there needs to be any particular changes to the court.
"That's why our local legal system carries on so well. We have good judges," he said. "I'd like to be a part of that process and carrying on that tradition."
Swanberg and his wife have six children.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer