Kennewick attorney and longstanding Republican Patrick McBurney believes a conservative voice is needed in the state Court of Appeals.
So when deciding what judicial seat to pursue this election cycle, McBurney says he zeroed in on Chief Judge George Fearing because of their contrasting backgrounds.
Fearing — who practiced law in the Tri-Cities for 31 years before his 2013 appointment to the bench — ran against now-retired U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings in 2008 as a Democrat.
Judicial positions in Washington are nonpartisan. McBurney understands that, but he believes voters want to know if candidates identify as Democrat or Republican or Libertarian, because it explains their personal and political philosophies.
He thinks he can win the Nov. 8 election because Eastern Washington is predominantly Republican, he said.
“I believe it is constitutionally protected free speech,” McBurney said of his campaign slogan. “It’s designed to let the voter know what I believe in, and simply saying that would not necessarily affect my impartiality or neutrality in deciding cases that come before me.”
Fearing dismisses any standard political party label, saying they’re misleading and, if anything, he was a conservative Democrat.
A judicial officer should not insert his personal political views, Fearing said. He argues that it is inappropriate and even “borderline against the law” for McBurney to make that an issue in this campaign.
A future litigant may question if they can get a fair shot in court knowing a judge is predisposed to one political view or another, he said.
“We are not permitted to say what party we belong to. We are not permitted to even imply what party we belong to,” Fearing said. “Being a judge is above politics.”
Appeals Court judges serve six-year terms. Their annual salary is $174,224.
The Spokane-based court has five judges and one commissioner. They review the decisions of all trial judges east of the Cascades, and are bound by Supreme Court rulings at the state and federal levels.
The District 2 position represents nine southeastern counties, including Benton and Franklin.
Gov. Jay Inslee selected Fearing in May 2013 to replace retiring Judge Dennis Sweeney. Fearing then was elected to the seat that November.
“As an appellate judge, I read and write, and I read and write, and I read and write,” Fearing said. “I thoroughly enjoy my work and I hope to continue in that position. It’s a good fit for me.”
He prides himself in thoroughly reviewing the facts of each case, researching the law and writing readable opinions. He has written about 300 opinions in three years, he said.
After Fearing became chief judge in the spring, he reinstated the practice of holding court outside of Spokane. So far, appellate hearings have been heard in Yakima and Pasco.
Fearing also volunteers as a Superior Court judge, filling in when a judge is unavailable or there’s a conflict. He presided over two Benton County criminal trials with the same defendant this year.
He serves on the state’s Board for Judicial Administration and the Commission on Judicial Conduct.
McBurney, who’s been practicing law for 23 years, thinks voters should always have a choice at the ballot box. He said when elected officials, including judges, routinely run unopposed, they become insulated and aren’t held accountable for their actions.
If Republican Rob McKenna had been successful in his bid for governor in 2012, McBurney says there’s a good possibility he would have been appointed to a position, either in the judicial or the executive branch.
But since the Democratic party has controlled that office for more than 30 years, people who have a “similar world view” to the sitting governor are appointed to open positions, McBurney says.
“I think in some ways, judicially speaking, (Fearing and I) probably look at the law in a similar way,” he said. “I’m offering a different set of life experiences and a different point of view than perhaps people appointed by Gov. Inslee or Gov. (Chris) Gregoire.”
Making a change this election by unseating an incumbent might send a signal to others in government that constituents aren’t satisfied and are looking for different outcomes, McBurney said.
McBurney thinks it is a great idea for judges to be elected in partisan races, as they are in Texas and some other states. He also acknowledges that the vast majority of people in Washington probably wouldn’t agree with him.