Fred Staples' dedication to justice a worthy legacy

It's easy to conjure up an image of retired Superior Court Judge Fred Staples.

Bearded and with a cigar in hand most of the time, he cut a swath as a character the likes of which we aren't likely to see again.

We are saddened that he is no longer with us. Staples died Monday at age 77.

A bit of a crusty curmudgeon, Staples was, but he was so much more once you got to know him.

First and foremost, he was passionate. No matter the cause, how big or how small, if he believed in it, he would champion it to the end. Or to the highest court.

Staples had a love of the law that was unparalleled. And he expected the same of the attorneys who came before him in the courtroom.

Young lawyers learned quickly that they had better come to court with their homework done and their arguments ready, because it was certain Staples had conducted his research.

Staples spent 12 years as a Franklin County District Court judge before being appointed to the Superior Court bench by then-Gov. Dan Evans in 1974. Staples replaced Judge James Lawless, who was killed by a pipe bomb in his chambers.

Staples saw generations of young lawyers come through his courtroom, and they'll tell you he made them the better for it. While he could be intimidating for sure, Staples quickly earned the respect and admiration of those who came before him.

It was easy to see his love for the law and his belief in justice. And that he wanted others to share his passion.

While Staples may have retired in 1994, he never stopped fighting for causes he believed in.

He may be best known for his determination to see the Benton County seat moved from Prosser to Kennewick, where most county business actually occurs, including court cases.

He took up that charge in 1984 and didn't let go of it, finally getting the issue back on the ballot in 2010, after years of gathering signatures across the community.

During that quest, he found side issues to conquer, including the creation of a Free Speech area at the Benton Franklin Fair, so he -- and others -- could gather signatures for petitions.

If you wanted to state something as fact to Staples, you had best be able to back it up. If the facts didn't support you, chances were Staples would check it out and let you know if you were wrong.

Despite his somewhat gruff demeanor, he charmed folks on the phone with his personal calls asking for their support to put the county seat initiative on the ballot. Though the vote did not go as he had hoped, Staples earned the further respect of many with his dedication to the cause.

His attempt to move the county seat may have been a major undertaking, but no issue was too minor if Staples thought it deserved a champion.

He once helped his stepson, a truck driver, beat a $520 fine for urinating in public at a scale house with no restroom facilities. Staples wrote an article in the April 2010 edition of the trucker magazine Land Line, setting out the defense for any other trucker caught "in the act." Common law, Staples pointed out, "has long recognized the existence of a defense of necessity."

Our thoughts are with Staples' friends and family, his colleagues and his golfing buddies. His wife Kay is the retired Benton County clerk. Everyone saddened by his loss should take comfort that our community is better for Staples having been a part of it.

Not everyone can pass from this life knowing that he made a difference in this world, but we surely hope that Staples had at least that bit of peace in the end.

Many a cigar and glass will be lifted in honor of Judge Staples this week. And if the county seat is ever moved to Kennewick, we fully expect a life-size statue of Staples to adorn the courtyard.