A Kennewick lawyer is trying to unseat one of Benton-Franklin Superior Court’s newer judges because she believes there is too much legislating from the bench.
Alicia Berry is taking on Judge Alex Ekstrom for Position 3 on the bicounty court.
Ekstrom — who donned a black robe two years ago — is the judge who ruled that Arlene’s Flowers and its owner, Barronelle Stutzman, violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act in refusing to provide services for a same-sex wedding.
Berry was part of the legal team representing the Richland flower shop. She withdrew from the case last spring to run for election.
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“I really am concerned that the public has lost faith in the judiciary,” Berry said. “They feel like the judges are stepping out of their role of being umpires, and they are basically in bed with the legislative and/or executive branches. They feel like the judges are trying to make law when that’s not within their purview.”
Ekstrom says he is prevented from talking about Berry’s comments because he is a sitting judge, and the Arlene’s Flowers case is on appeal awaiting arguments before the state Supreme Court.
However, Ekstrom says he is pleased with the work he’s done on the bench since being appointed in September 2014.
“I am a referee, not a coach, and I am entirely comfortable leaving my prior role as an advocate behind,” Ekstrom said. “I love watching attorneys work, but … I’m comfortable refereeing the field rather than playing on a team.”
Superior Court judges serve four-year terms. Their annual salary is $165,870.
Ekstrom spent about eight years of his childhood in the Tri-Cities before his family moved to the San Juan Islands.
After graduating with his law degree from the University of Washington, he returned to the eastern side of the state and went to work in the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office. He later joined his counterparts in Benton County, and ultimately became a federal prosecutor in 2008.
Gov. Jay Inslee picked Ekstrom to fill the Superior Court seat left vacant by Judge Sal Mendoza Jr.’s appointment to the federal bench. Ekstrom then ran unopposed in a special election in 2015.
Ekstrom, 46, lives in Richland with his wife and three children. He describes the past two years as the most exhausting and the most rewarding experience of his more than 18 years in public service.
Judges never have as much time as they would like to prepare because of the structure of the court and the pressing caseload, Ekstrom said. So it often means many late nights and early mornings before hearings are spent reading briefs “to make sure that no one’s case is prejudiced, and I am ready.”
“The decision of who serves as your judge is important, and in making that decision you should look carefully at the recommendations of the people who work most closely with the court — the attorneys, other elected officials and other judges past and present who’ve done that job,” he said.
“I’m overwhelmingly supported by those individuals, which can provide you confidence that I’m the right person to continue doing the job,” he said.
All seven positions on the Benton-Franklin bench are up for election this year.
Asked why she chose to run against Ekstrom and not another judicial position, Berry said “his rulings have created concern among both Democrats and Republicans alike.”
A Benton City native who graduated from Richland High in 1985, Berry returned home to care for her ailing grandmother after earning a law degree from the University of Idaho.
She worked for the Kennewick City Attorney’s office for three years, then went into private practice.
“I have more experience that is important to the people of the Tri-Cities. Not only do I have experience in criminal law like my opponent but, of the 65 areas of civil law listed by the Washington State Bar Association, I have experience in at least 50 of those,” Berry said.
“Whereas my opponent has virtually no experience in civil law. And since most people in the Tri-Cities are not criminals, when they come to the court, it’s because they have a civil issue and they need somebody with experience in that area of law to be making decisions,” she said.
She was a partner with the Liebler Connor Berry St. Hilaire law firm of Kennewick until her husband, who works for a Hanford contractor, was transferred to South Carolina.
She said she lives in the family home in Richland with plans for her husband to eventually return, and that her voter’s registration, driver’s license and tax returns all show that address.
She explained that she stepped down to an employee position at the law firm because she “couldn’t keep up the income stream and it wouldn’t have been fair to my partners to have them support me.”
Berry, 49, and her husband have two kids.