Crime

Accused Tri-Cities judge says ‘blatant attorney misconduct’ was why he unsealed files

Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner disputes abusing his judicial authority in a medical malpractice settlement, saying he had a duty to act on "blatant attorney misconduct."
Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner disputes abusing his judicial authority in a medical malpractice settlement, saying he had a duty to act on "blatant attorney misconduct." Tri-City Herald

The Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge accused of abusing his judicial authority on a medical malpractice case says he had a duty to act in response to “blatant attorney misconduct.”

Judge Bruce Spanner admits issuing an order unsealing documents that detailed a settlement between a Spokane hospital and a woman with a brain injury.

However, Spanner says he intervened in the settled case in March 2018 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 says he had “good relationships” with those two attorneys, had nothing to gain by opening the settlement and did not advance the interests of the lawyer’s estranged husband. He was motivated only by his desire to address the wrong the attorneys perpetrated, he said.

Requests a dismissal

His comments were made in a 17-page formal answer to the Washington state Judicial Conduct Commission.

He is asking for the statement of charges — which say he violated the Code of Judicial Conduct — to be dismissed because there was no wrongdoing.

“At all relevant times, Judge Spanner was motivated solely by his desire to maintain dignity and respect for the court, to protect its reputation and to control its processes,” according to Spanner’s lawyer, Brandon L. Johnson of Walla Walla.

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Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner disputes abusing his judicial authority in a medical malpractice settlement, saying he had a duty to act on "blatant attorney misconduct." Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

“Accordingly, when he unwittingly discovered egregious misconduct on the part of (the two attorneys), Judge Spanner in good faith and consistent with his statutory and inherent authority, took appropriate and measured action to address the misconduct.”

He asked for complaint

A complaint was filed with the state commission the day after Spanner unsealed the documents. Spanner asked to see the complaint, but his request was denied.

The board met April 26 and then announced its charges against the judge days later. It gave him three weeks to either file a written answer or admit the factual allegations.

Now, the board will decide if discipline is appropriate, which could range from admonishing or reprimanding Spanner to recommending his removal from the bench.

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.

Reviewed companion files

Spanner was set to preside March 14, 2018, over a guardianship case involving the woman with the brain injury. The medical malpractice file with the settlement was not on for a hearing that day, but was included for him to review.

After reading both files in preparation for the hearing, Spanner was informed he had been recused from the guardianship case by one of the attorneys. A lawyer is allowed to file one affidavit of prejudice against a judge on a case, without having to give a reason.

But since Spanner was not recused from the settlement case, he used the file to prepare an order opening the payout documents. That was the correct course of action, he said.

The attorneys had to be aware that open access to court records is presumed in Washington state, and documents can only be sealed after a public hearing held in accordance with a 1982 state case, he said.

Spanner then halted his order for 14 days until a proper motion to seal could be made, which gave the complainants an opportunity to be heard, said Johnson. Another judge denied their request to seal and officially opened the settlement file.

Not disqualified from case

The Judicial Conduct Commission does not recognize that the affidavit of prejudice was only filed in the guardianship case, so he was not disqualified from the settlement matter, he said.

Executive Director Reiko Callner also previously said that Spanner’s conclusion the settlement was intentionally kept confidential to hide the earnings from the lawyer’s divorce case was based on general talk the judge had heard at the courthouse and in the community.

Spanner disputes that they were “unreliable,” saying they were “contemporaneous reports by trusted court staff of proceedings in a public courtroom.”

He says he had the authority to act in the first place without a hearing, and gave the attorneys the chance to persuade another judge that he was mistaken.

He acted fairly and impartially but, if the commission thinks it was inappropriate, it would fall under legal error and not judicial misconduct, the judge said.

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.
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