Our Voice: Eastern Washington's next federal judge should sit in Richland courtroom

The presence of a federal judge in Richland is a big deal for our community.

And while most of us thankfully will never have the need to be inside a federal courtroom, we'd be really glad the proceedings could be held in the Tri-Cities if we did.

Otherwise, we'd be required to travel to Yakima or Spokane for what could be days at a time, paying our own travel costs, our attorney's expenses and costs incurred by any witnesses.

That could get expensive and oppressive during what likely would be an already stressful time.

The issue comes to the forefront now as Richland-based Judge Edward Shea plans to switch to senior status in June.

Rumors around town that a successor will not be appointed from the Tri-Cities are strong enough to prompt local leaders to reach out to our congressional delegation to reiterate the need for a federal judge here.

Shea's move to senior status in essence makes him a part-time judge, allowing him to still serve but to hear fewer cases. We don't blame Shea. He's had a long and illustrious career as an attorney and a judge in our community and it's time for a lighter workload. He was the first full-time federal judge based in Richland, a position he has held for 14 years.

And it has proved to be a busy court, with Shea hearing the same number of cases last year as the Yakima judges who have traditionally had a busier docket.

But even though Shea knows his court has demonstrated the need for a federal judge in the Tri-Cities, he has his own concerns about the succession plan. He's done all he can to ensure his replacement will find a home in the Richland courthouse.

Shea could have gone to senior status in 2010, but waited until new chambers for a senior judge were completed at the federal building. He wanted to make sure there was room for his successor and himself.

Shea explains that the cases heard in federal court are complex and far-reaching. A recent drug trial included 15 defendants, wiretap evidence and a multitude of witnesses and documents.

The position is being advertised as a Richland-based judge, and that directive came from Sen. Patty Murray's office. But that's still not enough to soothe the concerns of Shea and other local officials. That Murray's office declined to comment for a recent Herald article on the topic is a little curious, only adding to the suspicion that there may be something to the rumors.

Kennewick attorney John Schultz told the Herald that even though the position is being advertised as Richland-based, there is some concern in the community that the position could move.

"It is our hope and expectation that the judge will be here," said Schultz, who is on the committee to recommend Shea's replacement. "The Richland area has much more of a federal presence than Yakima. ... From our standpoint, we want that seat here."

Attorney Alicia Berry, former president of the Benton Franklin County Bar Association, said the impact would be felt throughout the community if we do not have a federal judge.

"It's not about the lawyers," she said. "It's about the community. The impact on our lower and middle classes would be just astronomical."

The Tri-Cities has been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation during Shea's tenure, creating an even greater need for a federal court than when he originally was appointed.

We have faith that our elected officials will see to it that our community's needs are met, not damaged. But we'll breathe easier when we see it happen.