Judge pro tem, assistant U.S. attorney face off

The race for an open seat in Benton County District Court pits an attorney with experience on the bench against another attorney with support from a long list of sitting and retired judges.

Dan Kathren and Alex Ekstrom are vying Tuesday for Position 3 to replace retiring Judge Holly Hollenbeck.

Kathren, 40, has been in private practice since 1996 and has served as a judge pro tem in municipal and district courts for 10 years.

Ekstrom, 40, is an assistant U.S. attorney for Washington's Eastern District and a former prosecutor in Franklin and Benton counties.

Both agree that District Court is the people's court -- where most people end up if they find themselves involved in the judicial system, whether in a misdemeanor criminal matter, a civil action or small claims.

And both men say their legal careers have prepared them to be just and fair and to wear a black robe, though they differ on their qualifications.

Ekstrom cites his quasi-judicial role as a federal prosecutor, saying he's worked with law enforcement and had to do late-night reviews of warrants and other duties associated with a judge. And though on-the-bench experience is important, he said, so is time spent working with law enforcement and other parties and handling a case in court.

"I've been doing off-bench work for 10 years," Ekstrom said at a recent meeting with the Herald's editorial board. "The judges who support me know I will be a successful judge from day one."

Kathren points to his passion for community service and time filling in for local jurists, saying he has a track record that makes him distinctly qualified.

"I've had every type of case there is to be heard," Kathren said. "... The experience that I've had there leads me to be able to jump right in."

Hollenbeck decided Dec. 31 that after 15 years as a full-time District Court judge, with an additional 10 years as a judge pro tem, he was ready to retire. He will leave the bench at year's end.

The four-year position pays an annual salary of $141,710.

Ninety percent of the cases in District Court are criminal, with the remaining 10 percent civil, the two candidates agreed.

Kathren attended Richland schools and graduated in 1992 from Washington State University with a degree in public administration. He attended a master's program in criminal justice at WSU Spokane, then received a law degree from Gonzaga University in 1996. He has been in private practice doing both criminal and civil work his entire career.

Kathren has been a pro tem judge in Benton and Franklin counties' district courts and Pasco Municipal Court for a decade and a hearings examiner for the city of Pasco since 2009. He also has been under contract with Benton County to provide legal services to indigent clients in District Court.

The lawyer said he now is applying for a job in the community. He said he planned his career to do the majority of his legal work in District Court because it's a fit for him.

"It's where I'm meant to be," he said. "I have a proven track record of service to this community. This is how I am. I was called to serve, and this is how I want to serve."

Kathren and his wife, Ellen, live in Richland. He has three daughters.

His endorsements include Reps. Larry Haler and Terry Nealey, Sen. Jerome Delvin, Benton County Commissioner Leo Bowman, Clerk Josie Delvin, County Administrator David Sparks and Kennewick City Councilman Bob Parks. Kathren also has the support of retired District Court Commissioner Bill Platts, Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner and over a dozen lawyers and an extensive list of "community leaders."

"I'm not the one touting endorsements, I'm touting experience," Kathren said. "I'm the most qualified candidate because of my experience, not because of who my friends are."

Ekstrom spent about eight years of his childhood in the Tri-Cities before his family moved to the San Juan Islands. He returned to the Tri-Cities upon graduating in 1997 with his law degree from the University of Washington.

Ekstrom spent a half-year in private practice before going to work in the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office in 1998. 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. He also was a team member of Superior Court's Adult Drug Court program.

And in 2008, he became a full-time federal prosecutor working in Richland and Yakima.

Ekstrom said he is being well-treated in his current job, but he believes he can best serve the community as judge.

"It is a better fit for my family and professionally is the right next step for me," he said. "... This is where I want to put my efforts."

Ekstrom and his wife Aimee live in Richland with their three children.

His endorsements include state Court of Appeals Division III presiding Chief Judge Dennis Sweeney, Superior Court Judges Craig Matheson, Cameron Mitchell, Vic VanderSchoor, Court Commissioners Lonna Malone and Jerri Potts and retired Judges Dennis Yule, Carolyn Brown and Duane Taber. He also has the support of Franklin County District Court Judge Jerry Roach, Benton County District Court Judge Terry Tanner, Rep. Brad Klippert, Prosecutors Andy Miller of Benton County, Steve Lowe of Franklin County and James Hagarty of Yakima County, Benton County Sheriff Larry Taylor, Pasco Police Chief Denis Austin and Franklin County Clerk Mike Killian.

"I understand that support comes with obligation, and I promise to be worthy of that trust," Ekstrom has said.

More information on Kathren can be found at dankathren.com.

Ekstrom's website is tricitiescrimestoppers.org.