The pending retirement of Judge Robert Swisher from the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench sparked an unusually heated race to succeed him.
Sam Swanberg is a longtime attorney who has tried numerous Superior Court cases in his 23 years, including 50 serious felonies and a potential death penalty case. He served as a judge pro tem and was an environmental attorney in Seattle before moving to the Tri-Cities as a trial attorney.
Joe Burrowes has a more varied résumé that includes working in law enforcement and as a prosecutor. He served on the bench for 12 years, and was elected to the Benton County District Court bench seven years ago. He is running as “Judge Joe Burrowes,” which reflects his position on the District Court bench and not the Superior Court one.
Both candidates are family men who boast of deep roots in — and love for — the Tri-Cities and the law.
Judicial elections tend to be polite affairs. American Bar Association rules for judicial conduct preclude candidates from overtly participating in politics in general, a policy designed to keep judges above reproach.
As a result, qualifications for office are the central point of contention in the race to succeed the highly respected Judge Swisher in Position 2 on the local bench.
Swanberg said his years of experience trying complex cases in Superior Court gives him the edge.
“I have far more experience in Superior Court,” he said.
Burrowes countered that his judicial experience in District Court and leadership have better prepared him for the post. He disagreed at the suggestion that District Court cases are less serious than the crimes and disputes addressed in Superior Court.
“It’s totally false that I don’t handle important cases,” he said, noting that the lower court handles preliminary hearings for Superior Court.
Swanberg agreed all cases are important, but said a murder case simply can’t be compared to one involving simple assault.
“A judge is a judge. The rules of law all apply,” he said.
Both candidates say they were led to legal careers by a calling to public service and to a sense of justice.
Burrowes was raised by his grandmother, who revered public service as a noble calling. He grew up wanting to become an attorney and a judge, though his career took him first into law enforcement and later to Washington State University and then Gonzaga University School of Law.
He worked as a municipal attorney in the Tri-Cities and is dean of the judicial college that educates newly elected and appointed judges in Washington on courtroom matters. He is active in the judicial field and serves on the Washington State Bar Association’s Rules Committee.
Swanberg said he initially wanted to be a police officer. An undergraduate law class at Brigham Young University steered him to law school instead, and one of his first jobs was with a large Seattle law firm where he practiced environmental law in an office overlooking Puget Sound.
He left that to become a trial attorney, leaving Seattle for Franklin County, where he became a prosecutor, then entered private practice.
In one of his most high-profile cases, Swanberg represented Nicolas Solorio Vasquez, a Mexican immigrant who faced the death penalty for the 1999 murder of Washington State Patrol Trooper Jim Saunders during a routine traffic stop in Pasco.
He said the case, which shut down the rest of his practice for two years, is an example of the complexity of what transpires in Superior Court. Vasquez was sentenced to life in prison after he entered a modified guilty plea to first-degree murder.
Richland Firefighters IAFF Local 10-52, Hanford Atomic Metal Traces Council Union, Kennewick Police Management Association, Benton County Republican Party* and other organizations and individuals.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rogers, R-Wash., Washington state Farm Bureau, Washington Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, Benton County Republican Party* and other organizations and individuals.
*Benton County GOP procedures allow multiple endorsements in a single race.
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