Rob Olson first became interested in politics when he was in his early teens. He looked around and saw that many legislators and politicians got their starts as lawyers. So, after leaving the U.S. Army as a major, Olson decided in 1992 to make his teenage dream a reality and headed to law school.
Four years later, Olson moved to Bellingham and began his legal career in private practice. He went on to the Public Defender’s office for a decade, handling municipal, district, civil and criminal court cases, and later moved to the state attorney general’s office. Last week he attained his ultimate goal of becoming a judge.
On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Olson to serve as a judge in Whatcom County Superior Court. Olson, 54, said he expects to know sometime this week when he will take the oath of office and start hearing cases.
“Of course I was exceptionally flattered by his decision to invite me to be appointed and it’s been something of a whirlwind,” Olson said. “It’s exceptionally exciting.”
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Olson, of Bellingham, replaced the late Judge Ira J. Uhrig, who died in May from complications from lymphoma that he battled for several years. Olson said he and Uhrig’s careers mirrored each other. While Olson was handling cases in municipal and district courts and then later Superior Court, Uhrig went from being a judge in District Court to one in Superior Court.
“In many ways as I advanced in my career from doing misdemeanors and municipal and District Court to doing felonies in Superior Court, I kind of followed him,” Olson said.
His decade-long experience in the military is what led him to pursue becoming a judge, Olson said. He served as a major in military intelligence for the U.S. Army and Washington Army National Guard and received the National Defense Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal and Meritorious Service Medal. Helping his soldiers settle disputes gave him an opportunity to resolve differences while keeping the group moving forward, he said.
“My role in society is to serve as a public servant making the best decisions that I can, loving the state and the country that I’ve served,” Olson said.
Respect and dignity
Olson said he’s spent most of his legal career in the Whatcom community and has often appeared in court in front of the three sitting Superior Court judges. He said he was always impressed by how each of them treated the attorneys and the people appearing in their courtrooms with respect and dignity. He’s looking forward to having them as colleagues and learning from them, he said.
“No matter what, you can expect from me that I will treat each person, attorney or a citizen, pro se or represented, with dignity and respect.”
Judge Deborra Garrett said Olson has always been noted for his careful preparation and expects he will bring the same work ethic to his time on the bench. She said it’s a privilege to serve the community as a judge, and she believes Olson knows that.
“When he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it. He’s a hard worker. As a judge he will always be prepared when he comes out to hear a case and he’ll work hard on getting it right whatever the case is,” Garrett said. “I think we’re all looking forward to Rob because he’s a good lawyer, we all have respect for him and we all think he will be a very good judge.”
Olson said there will be a learning curve in the area of family law for him, as he’s mostly practiced criminal law, or handled cases involving Child Protective Services while serving in the state attorney general’s office. Most recently, he’s served as general counsel to Western Washington University the past two years, also in the state attorney general’s office.
Olson also taught business law, or as he likes to call it, “an introduction to the American legal system,” as a professor for nearly 20 years. Because of those connections, Olson said he’ll likely have to recuse himself from matters involving the college.
When asked about some of the issues facing the criminal justice system, Olson said he couldn’t comment. Olson said he has to hear each case on its own merits in the interest of fairness regarding future cases he may rule on.
“Nobody who appears in that courtroom including myself is a perfect person and some of them have engaged in conduct that demonstrates that and it’s risen to the level where it violates the law,” Olson said. ”If you remember and you genuinely appreciate that no person is perfect, and at least from my background and perspective, that each person is worthy of forgiveness, that can soften the approach to sort of the harshness the law can sometimes represent.”
The experience needed
Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Dave McEachran said Olson has a good understanding of the law and the varied experience needed to be on the bench.
“It’s a challenging job. You have to have a good understanding of evidence. I think he’ll bring a lot of background,” McEachran said. “I look forward to working with him.”
Starck Follis, director of the Whatcom County Public Defender’s Office, said it takes time to get used to a judge’s mannerisms and what they expect from lawyers who appear in front of them. He said he believes Olson understands the amount of work that goes into a case.
“Rob has been around a long time. He’s had a distinguished career and I think by and large the public defender’s office are fine with his appointment,” Follis said.
Olson said he’s grateful for all of the colleagues he’s worked with previously and how much he’s learned from them, and hopes to serve them and the public well as a judge.
“I am deeply honored that Gov. Inslee has given me his trust and confidence,” Olson said. “I will do everything in my power on the bench to merit that trust and confidence at each court hearing and every day that I remain on the bench.”