State board settles with Tri-Cities judge in abuse of power case. Public hearing is canceled

Just days before a public hearing was to begin on charges that Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner abused his judicial authority, an agreement has been reached.

However, the contents of that stipulation, including whether Spanner will face any disciplinary action, will not be made public until the Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct meets Nov. 22.

Discipline options include admonishment, reprimand, censure, censure with a recommendation to the Washington Supreme Court for suspension or removal, or any other sanction the board is authorized to impose.

A news release Friday from commission Executive Director Reiko Callner says the stipulation was agreed to by Spanner, his lawyer David Allen of Seattle, and commission disciplinary co-counsel Rita Bender and William Bender.

Spanner could not be reached by the Herald about the agreement.

He previously requested a fact-finding hearing, which was to start Monday in a Kennewick courtroom.

Nine members of the state board were to hear testimony from both sides before determining if the Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge violated the Code of Judicial Conduct when he got involved with a case that wasn’t assigned to him.

Friday’s news release said the proceeding is canceled now that the hearing panel accepted the stipulation.

Commission rules state that its contents must be filed publicly at an open session.

The board only meets every two to three months to review new complaints, discuss the progress of ongoing investigations and take action on existing complaints.

The next meeting is 11 a.m. Nov. 22 at the Crowne Plaza Seattle Airport hotel in SeaTac and open to the public.

The commission is an independent agency that works to protect the integrity of the judicial process and promote public confidence in the courts by enforcing ethics rules for judges.

Abuse of power claim

Spanner has been a member of the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench since January 2009.

After the board found in April that Spanner violated two canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, he disputed the allegations.

The board said his actions allegedly undermined the basic principles of the conduct code involving: compliance with the law; promoting confidence in the judiciary; avoiding abuse of a judge’s prestige; impartiality and bias; ensuring the right to be heard; and ex parte communications.

Spanner said that when he unsealed a settlement in a medical malpractice case in March 2018, he had a duty to intervene because of “blatant attorney misconduct.”

The settlement was between a Spokane hospital and a woman with a brain injury.

Spanner said he intervened in the settled case because it was clear two attorneys had misused a state court rule to inappropriately seal the documents.

One of those lawyers was in the middle of a contentious divorce, and keeping the “enormous” $2.6 million attorney’s fee secret could have given her an unfair advantage in her earnings disclosure, Spanner said at the time.

The judge said he was motivated only by his desire to address the wrong the attorneys perpetrated.

He requested the hearing, saying the statement of charges should be dismissed because there was no wrongdoing.

If it had gone to a hearing, the board’s disciplinary counsel would have presented their case against Spanner, and possibly even called the judge as a witness.

Spanner also would have had the opportunity to present evidence and produce his own witnesses.

Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.