Appearance of fairness matters in picking judges

The News TribuneNovember 13, 2012 

The criminal justice system abounds in people, procedures and places: judges, courtrooms, attorneys, indictments, trials, appeals and jail cells.

But all of it stands on something insubstantial: trust. It’s not good enough that the system is fair. It must also be perceived as fair by the public.

That’s why the Pierce County Council should tread carefully as it revises its process for filling vacancies on the bench. It should not involve parties with vested interests in how cases turn out – including the Prosecutor’s Office.

There’s been a flurry of maneuvering, on and around the council, over the appointment of a replacement for Judge Jack Nevin of the District Court. (Nevin will soon move to the Superior Court.)

The council hasn’t made such an appointment since 2003, but the process it used nine years ago is theoretically still in place. The council then relied on a list of candidates supplied by a six-member panel.

That committee consisted of two members of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association, one representative of the Minority Bar Association, a representative of the state court administrator, plus the County Council’s lawyer and the District Court’s presiding judge.

They proposed a handful of candidates; the council chose from the list.

The point of a committee is to bring legal expertise and credibility to the process, ensuring that the new judge is qualified and fair-minded. And perceived as such.

There’s nothing sacred about the makeup of the 2003 committee. But the council has been playing with alternative possibilities that don’t make a lot of sense.

One proposal would drop the Bar Association and Minority Bar Association from the panel, and add representatives from the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center, the Prosecutor’s Office and the county’s chief public defender.

We admire the Prosecutor’s Office, the Department of Assigned Counsel and the Crystal Judson center’s efforts on behalf of domestic violence victims. But we don’t see why any of them should be in the business of picking judges.

The prosecution and public defense in particular have obvious conflicts of interest. The individuals representing them on the committee might possess absolute integrity and devotion to judicial impartiality. That wouldn’t make the conflict go away; there would still be the appearance of biased parties jostling to make an inside decision on who will render decisions in their cases.

Of all people, Prosecutor Mark Lindquist doesn’t need this additional leverage. When bench seats are up for grabs in elections, the endorsements of Lindquist, the deputy prosecutors and the police carry enormous weight with the voters.

That’s influence enough. The County Council should pick a committee with no agenda – perceived or real – beyond finding the best possible candidates for this position.

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