Guest Opinions

Guest opinion: Who judges the judges?

The Rotunda in the Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco.
The Rotunda in the Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco. Tri-City Herald

What recourse does a citizen have if he or she believes a judge is acting illegally or unethically? In Washington, our state constitution has established the Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct for dealing with such complaints and for ensuring public confidence in the competence and integrity of our judicial system.

The May 23 meeting of the Columbia Basin Badger Club will explore how this commission performs its duties. The forum will feature J. Reiko Callner, Executive Director of the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct, and Walla Walla District Court Judge, Kristian Hedine, an Alternate Judge Member of the Commission.

The Commission is charged with investigating complaints against judicial officers that may be brought by private citizens or others. Specifically, the Commission is empowered to

Investigate complaints about judges’ conduct,

Determine whether a judge is disabled and unable to fulfill his or her duties,

Train judges to avoid ethical violations, and help judges who are sanctioned to change their behavior,

Impose or recommend discipline, as appropriate, against a judge who violates ethical standards, and

Secure the removal of a judge from office if this proves necessary.

The Commission consists of eleven members and eleven alternates, who serve in case a member is unavailable. Membership is composed of three members from the judicial community, two attorney members, selected by the state Bar Association, and six non-lawyer, non-judge members appointed by the governor.

The Commission provides a forum for citizens’ complaints against judges that is independent of the political process. The Commission is also charged with educating the public on what constitutes proper and improper judicial conduct. And finally, the Commission serves to protect judges from false, unfounded, and inaccurate accusations that can damage a judge’s reputation.

Like most states, Washington has an elected judiciary. These judges range from “judges of limited jurisdiction” who handle issues like traffic offenses, misdemeanors, and minor civil litigation (municipal judges and district court judges) to the superior court judges who try felonies and preside over larger civil suits, to appeals court judges and members of our state supreme court.

To ensure the quality and integrity of our state’s judiciary, certain restrictions are placed on judges and candidates for judgeships that are not placed on other elected officials.

First of all, a judge or judicial candidate cannot campaign as a member of a political party. Judicial elections in Washington are nonpartisan and have been since 1907. Judges must also be under the age of 75. Judges and judicial candidates for the state supreme court, court of appeals, and superior courts must be members of the Washington State Bar Association, and in the case of the court of appeals, an active member of the Bar for at least five years.

With respect to municipal and district court judges, educational and Bar membership requirements are more flexible, especially for small communities.

However, all judges and judicial candidates, no matter what level, must comply with Washington State’s Code of Judicial Conduct. This code is summarized in four Judicial Cannons:

Canon 1 — A Judge Shall Uphold and Promote the Independence, Integrity, and Impartiality of the Judiciary, and Shall Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety.

Canon 2 — A Judge Should Perform the Duties of Judicial Office Impartially, Competently, and Diligently.

Canon 3 — A Judge Shall Conduct the Judge’s Personal and Extrajudicial Activities to Minimize the Risk of Conflict with the Obligations of Judicial Office.

Canon 4 — A Judge or Candidate for Judicial Office Shall Not Engage in Political or Campaign Activity that is Inconsistent with the Independence, Integrity, or Impartiality of the Judiciary.

It is the job of the Commission on Judicial Conduct to enforce these standards of conduct in both judges’ official duties and their private activities. The Commission also assists the judiciary in maintaining the necessary balance between independence and accountability, and it works to assure the public that the judiciary neither permits nor condones misconduct.

In other words, it is the agency that judges the day-to-day conduct of judges.

So, in a belated celebration of Law Day bring your curiosity and your questions, and learn more about the administration of justice and this critical function of government.

Bill Pennell is a retired atmospheric researcher. He is a member of the Badger Club’s program committee.

If you go

When: 11:30 a.m., Thursday, May 23

Where: Shilo Inn, 50 Comstock St., Richland

Cost: $20 for Badger Club members, $25 for nonmembers. Registration is required.

RSVP: Call 628-6011 or go to cbbc.clubexpress.com

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