Two seasoned veterans of the Whatcom County justice system are facing off in a tight race for an open judge's bench in superior court.
David M. Grant, a former Lincoln, Neb., police officer and Whatcom County deputy prosecutor, has been a district court judge since 2005. He took 41.1 percent of the vote in the three-way primary. It's a nonpartisan race, but he's endorsed by the local Republican Party, and much of his support came from voters in right-leaning parts of the county. This is his first contested election.
His opponent, lawyer Deborra Garrett, moved on to the general election with 40.74 percent of votes, taking well over half of the ballots cast in Bellingham, where the demographic is more liberal. She's endorsed by the Whatcom Democrats. If elected, she would be the first woman to serve as a Whatcom County Superior Court judge.
Garrett is president of the local bar association and a partner with Zender Thurston, one of the oldest law firms in Whatcom County. Two decades ago she ran for Superior Court judge and lost to Steven Mura, in a race that ended weeks after Election Day in a drawn-out count of absentee ballots.
Mura is retiring at the end of the year.
The Bellingham Herald sat down with both candidates, in separate interviews, to discuss their campaigns and major issues facing the court. Election Day is Nov. 6.
Both candidates think adding a fourth judge to Whatcom County Superior Court would make the local justice system more efficient, and both promised to lobby for another judge. Awarding one is up to the state.
Until then, they differ on how to divvy up labor. Grant wants to devote one of the county's three current judge positions to focus only on civil cases, leaving the other two to handle felonies. Criminal cases, he noted, take priority because of a constitutional right to a speedy trial. He sees his plan devoting adequate resources to criminal cases. If the civil case judge could not hear a case for some reason, and the criminal judges were busy, he would advocate bringing in a District Court judge to handle it.
Garrett objects to that division of judges. She noted that in the first few months of this year, only 23 percent of cases filed in superior court were criminal felonies. A single judge would not be enough to handle all the lawsuits, family matters, involuntary commitments and other civil cases that make up the bulk of court filings. If the civil judge were out sick, would cases not be heard, she asked. And she feared isolating one judge to civil cases would harm the collegiality and sharing of different perspectives among judges.
Looking at the results of the primary, there's kind of a partisan rift in the electorate. What's your take on the voter breakdown?
Grant: It's interesting, as I talk to people, because we're so familiar with party politics. People have a hard time getting a hold of the concept of a nonpartisan race. As a judge, my judicial ethics prohibit me from disclosing what party I belong to. Yesterday I had someone slam a door in my face. ... I do remember being in front of the Whatcom Democrats, and Deborra urged them, 'Don't water down your endorsement.'
It was the state Supreme Court loosening up the requirements that allowed us judicial candidates to go to a party. It was politicized because of the decisions made by parties.
Garrett: I believe that my record and my qualifications make me qualified for the position in a nonpartisan way. And I have tried to talk with any group that wished to talk with me through this campaign. I'm pleased and proud to have been given the endorsement of the Democratic Party. That was done in a very democratic way, if you will, in that there was a full party meeting and all of the candidates were invited and spoke, and then there was a vote.
I don't know how the Republican Party made its decision. I would have been pleased to have the endorsement of the Republican Party, as well. I tried to be in touch with the party to obtain that. I did not hear back from the party. ... I would agree that it seems supporters of the candidates have drawn some partisan lines.
For Garrett: I was reviewing some of our archived articles, and saw that - I believe it was in 2003, around the height of the Iraq War - you protesting with a group of lawyers against the war. Is that something you stand by? And do you think it's relevant in this race?
Garrett: You know, I don't know. I guess you can decide. My feeling on the Iraq War at the time was that there was not sufficient evidence that the weapons of mass destruction we were being told about existed. I don't believe in making decisions when you don't have sufficient evidence. That's true in all cases, especially if the decision involves dropping bombs, killing people. ... That was my concern then, and I think it turned out to be a valid concern.
So I don't think that position is, in any way, inconsistent with a position that a judge would take in most cases. You hear the evidence and you make a decision based on the evidence. One's personal politics are not relevant to one's position as a judge. But my concern then had to do with sufficiency of evidence, basically.
For Grant: Are you somebody who plays it closer to the vest?
Grant: A judge has less freedom to express him or herself. ... I can't allow people to say, 'This is Dave Grant's personal perspective on life and political issues and legal issues.' I don't let those aspects of my persona impact the decisions I make on the bench. ... I could not go to an anti-war rally, for example, even if I wanted to, because as a judge it would violate my judicial ethics.
What compelled you to devote such a large portion of your life to law?
Garrett: I've always been fascinated by law. I decided to be a lawyer when I was 8 years old. ... When I said I wanted to be lawyer my parents arranged for me to talk to (a family friend who was a lawyer), and this man talked to me very nicely and explained that men become lawyers, and women become legal secretaries. And I wasn't sure what a legal secretary did, but I knew what I wanted to do was become a lawyer. I asked him why it was that way. He didn't have a very good explanation. He just said, "Well, that's the way it is." I thought about it for a long time. ... (But) if I was intelligent enough to do the work, then what was the question? ... I have not made an issue of my gender because it's pertinent, in that a woman's perspective is a helpful perspective, in pretty much any situation. My primary reason for running and my primary qualification that I offer the electorate don't have so much to do with my gender as the quality of work I've done over the years.
Grant: I was initially interested in corrections, not law enforcement. But as I got out of graduate school, the money for research and development of new programming in corrections was drying up. Police work was open. I tried it out and found it gratifying, because I could help people in their time of need. Got to the point where I saw the courtroom, had some classes in criminal law, and thought this was something that could take my skills to a new level. I found out I was well suited to that. (So I) went to law school. Got hired as a prosecutor and flourished there. ... It's interesting how few times people thank you. It was gratifying, when you work with the victim of a crime, to get personal thanks. But people just expect you to do that work. So you understand that, and you work away, and you serve the public. I've done a lot, I think, for the public. I have a big heart. I want to help people.
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Reach CALEB HUTTON at email@example.com or call 360-715-2276.