Crime

Judge Swisher heading for retirement at year’s end

Judge Robert Swisher of Benton-Franklin Superior Court will retire when his term is up at end of the year. He will have served 16 years on the bench.
Judge Robert Swisher of Benton-Franklin Superior Court will retire when his term is up at end of the year. He will have served 16 years on the bench. Tri-City Herald

After a particularly tough day in court dealing with the ugly side of life, Judge Robert Swisher feels blessed to have a happy marriage, supportive family and good friends.

The Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge admits that he has a difficult time just walking away from the evil he hears, and often wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about his cases.

He will never forget the pregnant mother killed so a Kennewick woman could try to pass off the unborn baby as her own. The Benton City coach fatally stabbed as part of a robbery and gang initiation. Or the Pasco man who wrote threatening letters to his ex-girlfriend while awaiting deportation, then returned from Mexico to kill her in front of their young son.

For more than 15 years, Swisher has found solace in his home life at the end of the work day. Now he is ready to be there full time — checking off his wife’s chore list and playing with their grandchildren.

“Little kids don’t care if you’ve had a bad day,” Swisher said. “You can come home all worn out and you’ve had a terrible day, and they’re just happy to see you.”

Swisher, 69, plans to hang up his black robe at the end of this year. He will have served four, four-year terms on the bicounty bench.

His pending retirement means there will be an open seat in the May filing period. All seven judicial positions will be up for election this year.

He is one of the kindest and thoughtful persons I’ve ever met, professionally and personally. He treats everybody with the utmost respect and he tries to bring a little levity into the courtroom when appropriate.

Court reporter Lisa Lang

Swisher could go another term because the mandatory retirement age is 75, but he says he needs to slow down.

“It’s time to not have to get up by an alarm clock in the morning,” he told the Herald. “We’ll do a little traveling, we have friends that we’ll go camping with, and there are some fish that have my name on them. I just have to find them.”

His wife of 36 years, Nilea Swisher, is retired after 30 years of teaching with the Richland School District. Their daughter, Kylie, is a research scientist at Washington State University’s Prosser extension, and son Kevin is a director with the Hanford High School music department. They have two grandkids with a third on the way.

Judge Vic VanderSchoor — the longest-serving judge on the bench — said he understands his colleague’s desire to step back and spend more time with the grandkids and traveling.

“We’re all sorry to see him leave, but there comes a time when you start thinking about retirement and you want to have a number of retirement years to enjoy yourself,” VanderSchoor said. “I think he’s a good role model for judges who have come on the bench after him. He’s done a great job, he’s a very hard worker and he’s dedicated.”

Superior Court Administrator Pat Austin said Swisher will be missed on the bench and in the office.

“I think we’re all happy for him about his decision, but I think we’ll feel the loss here,” she said. “I know he’s been a huge inspiration for me and a mentor, and I’ve appreciated being able to learn from him and work for him.”

A 1964 Connell High School graduate, Swisher earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Idaho before enlisting in the Navy for four years. He returned to Idaho for law school, then moved to the Tri-Cities.

Swisher worked for Hanford contractor J.A. Jones Construction Services for about seven months on a survey crew before practicing law for 25 years. During that time, he served as Richland’s part-time prosecutor for a few years, and was city attorney for Connell for 15 years and West Richland for more than 20 years.

In 2000, Swisher ran against three attorneys to replace retiring Judge Philip Raekes.

“I think it’s almost a natural thing for any attorney that practices law to walk out of court and say, ‘I could do that,’ ” he said. “We’ve always had high-quality judges here in the Tri-Cities, and I say that quite honestly.”

Swisher faced no challengers in his next three elections.

It’s time to not have to get up by an alarm clock in the morning. We’ll do a little traveling, we have friends that we’ll go camping with and there are some fish that have my name on them — I just have to find them.

Judge Robert Swisher

He will not miss the late-night phone calls from law enforcement needing a search warrant signed, though he acknowledges the frequent patrol cars at his Franklin County home make it safer. He jokes that a neighbor down the road once thought he was a lawbreaker because of the heavy police traffic.

However, Swisher does get emotional when talking about no longer seeing the people with whom he works so closely — court staff, bailiffs, clerks and even the residents who “give their time for peanuts” to serve on a jury and often view horrific evidence.

What helps him separate from the ugly cases is “I can turn it over to my Lord,” he said. “And I know I’ve had people praying for me, and I appreciate that.”

Court reporter Lisa Lang said she’s been blessed to have worked with the late Judge Fred Staples for 11 years, Raekes for six and Swisher for what will be 16 years.

She didn’t really know Swisher when he was elected, but the two have grown to have an amazing relationship, she said.

“He’s such a hard act to follow that I’m thinking of retiring at the same time he is,” Lang said. “He is one of the kindest and thoughtful persons I’ve ever met, professionally and personally. He treats everybody with the utmost respect and he tries to bring a little levity into the courtroom when appropriate.”

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531, @KristinMKraemer

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