Inslee picks Richland attorney for new Benton-Franklin judgeship

As an assistant U.S. attorney in Eastern Washington, Alex Ekstrom admits going before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to argue a case can be “a very stressful endeavor.”

But when Ekstrom found himself outside Gov. Jay Inslee’s office last week awaiting an interview, the longtime prosecutor was fondly thinking of going before the federal appeals court because that was less stressful than the position he was in.

On Tuesday, he could breathe a sigh of relief as Inslee made the announcement that Ekstrom would become the newest member of the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench.

Ekstrom, 44, will fill the seat left vacant by Judge Sal Mendoza Jr., who in June was appointed by President Obama to U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Washington.

Inslee made his selection from a pool of four applicants: Ekstrom, Pamela Peterson, Ted Sams and Sam Swanberg. There reportedly was one other finalist who went before Inslee in the final round.

Ekstrom will join five other judges and three court commissioners on the bicounty bench.

“This is a big day for my family and my friends and the folks who have supported me in this endeavor,” Ekstrom told the Herald. “More than anything else it places an obligation on me to be worthy of the selection and it means that I have an obligation to do my best, both for the community and to vindicate (Inslee’s) selection.”

Ekstrom visited the courthouses in both Kennewick and Pasco on Tuesday afternoon to meet with court staff. He also talked to court administration about a start date and is trying to schedule his swearing-in ceremony within the next couple of weeks because he’s excited to don that black robe “sooner rather than later.”

Ekstrom of Richland has been a full-time federal prosecutor since 2008, working primarily in Richland and Yakima. He previously worked in the prosecutor’s offices in both Franklin and Benton counties.

“Alex has exceptional experience working throughout Central and Eastern Washington and has really established himself as a top-notch prosecutor,” Inslee said in a news release.

“He brings a strong commitment to fighting crime and improving the safety of his community, and I know he’ll be an excellent addition to the bench.”

Judge Robert Swisher, Superior Court’s administrative presiding judge, added that the bench is very happy to have a new colleague and that it’s a person with the experience that Ekstrom has.

Ekstrom spent about eight years of his childhood in the Tri-Cities before his family moved to the San Juan Islands. When he got a job offer in the Tri-Cities upon graduating in 1997 with his law degree from the University of Washington, he jumped at it before even taking the bar exam.

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.

Ekstrom ran a campaign in 2010 for Benton County District Court judge position 3, and lost by 15 votes to Dan Kathren.

He applied for Superior Court Judge Craig Matheson’s open seat in March 2013, but put his support behind friend and colleague Mendoza for the appointment. Then Mendoza got the promotion to federal court, leaving the seat vacant again.

Ekstrom has said he’s enjoyed a career in public service and felt this was the next step for him in this community.

“It’s going to be very nice to be back in the building where I started my career,” he said. “I’m still adjusting to the reality of it.”Ekstrom and his wife, Aimee, have three children: Nicholas, William and Annaliese.

Ekstrom was notified Monday morning that Inslee wanted to appoint him. He said he “was about as nervous as I can recall being in my professional career,” but upon accepting was allowed to immediately tell his wife.

His second most nervous time? The morning of Sept. 4 as he and Aimee sat in the entryway at the governor’s office.

“I at one point turned to her and said, ‘Are you nervous?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Why would I be nervous? I just have to sit here and wear a dress,’ which was exactly what I needed to hear then. That was a nice bit of humor and release.”

Ekstrom said what ran through his mind as got the call Monday was the multiple-year process he and his family have been through to accomplish his dream — the experiences, the 2010 campaign, the endorsement of Mendoza in 2013 and the past few months after filing his application with Inslee the second time around.

Ekstrom said what he loves about working in court “is that you’re dealing with people and people’s stories and people’s problems, and because of that you will never get bored.”

“The variety of the issues that come before you will always keep the job interesting, and also there’s the challenges,” he added. “There will be lots to learn and there will be an adjustment to the new role, but I’m excited about beginning the work.”

Ekstrom will have to run for election in 2015 and, if he keeps the seat, re-election in 2016 along with the other judges at the end of their four-year terms.

“In accepting the appointment, I’ve already done my initial preparation to defend the seat and I know how to do it,” he said.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531;; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer