One of the least visible races on the November ballot in Spokane County is for Superior Court judge. It includes an incumbent and an attorney who claims the late civil rights attorney Carl Maxey as a mentor.
In February, Shelley Szambelan was a municipal court judge in the city of Spokane, when Governor Jay Inslee picked her to fill a vacant Superior Court seat. State law now requires her to run for the seat now to keep it past this year.
Municipal and district courts are considered courts of limited jurisdiction, traffic tickets, misdemeanors, simple infractions. Superior Court handles the more serious cases. And so it was no surprise that when we met Szambelan, she had a big white binder with her. She was sitting at a table on the patio of a coffee shop a few blocks away from the county courthouse. Inside the binder were the papers for the cases she would consider later that afternoon.
“This is a very small Friday civil motion binder," Szambelan said. "I was talking to another judge the other day and they had a stack of paper about that thick, roughly five inches thick, and that was for one motion. It is mind blowing in how much and how varied it is. There’s involuntary treatment act hearings, juvenile, criminal, felony, family law, commercial disputes, unlawful detainers. I sit on that docket.”
In other words, she does a lot of reading. Often she’ll take binders home over the weekend to prepare for Monday cases.
“And it’s funny because I’m not really a morning person and I gave up coffee. And as you can see from my iced coffee here, I’m back to drinking it and I’m usually at work at 7:30, if not before, and I usually work through lunch and stay late, so it’s definitely voluminous,” Szambelan said.
Szambelan touts her experience as a judge as a reason why she believes voters should choose her over her opponent.
“Judicial experience is very helpful, temperament, because you’re dealing with people not at their best as a general rule. If it’s a criminal situation, their life and liberty are at peril. If it’s a family law situation, it’s a highly emotionally charged situation for everybody involved,” she said.
And, she says, that’s where doing the job every day, as opposed to fill-in work on the bench, makes her the better candidate.
Shelley Szambelan’s opponent is attorney Dennis Cronin. As we sat in his conference room, I noticed over his shoulder a photo of the late Carl Maxey, the longtime attorney and civil rights activist whom Cronin calls his legal mentor.
“Carl Maxey took me out of legal services back in the eighties when I was a poverty lawyer. And from there, for the next 15 years, I worked for Carl Maxey, became his partner, became his personal attorney, became the firm’s attorney and went all over Washington," trying cases in different counties, different jurisdictions.
“Carl was an amazing man, an amazing influence and I am who I am as a lawyer because of him,” Cronin said.
Cronin now runs a solo practice near the courthouse. When we meet, he points to a chart that lists the heavy workload of the county Superior Court, with more than 28,000 cases filed during the first five months of this year. He says the court needs to address some of the structural issues that lead to such a large number of people being incarcerated.
“There are families that are being traumatized over in that court, moreso than when they come in. They come in under trauma in one way or another and have serious problems. That’s why they’re in court. The system over there is just making the trauma worse," Cronin said. "It shouldn’t take two years for a family that’s restructuring to get a divorce. It shouldn’t cost $50,000 for a family that’s restructuring to get a divorce.”
Cronin believes the Superior Court needs to carry out a review and find ways to make it more efficient for people to move through the system.
“There are alternative ways to resolve disputes other than the traditional manner of hiring lawyers, going to court, spending a lot of money for over a year, going through motions and practice and then…you can do it quicker, you can do it cheaper, you can do it in a more dignified manner, such as mediation, facilitated mediation or an arbitration,” Cronin said.
That’s an area where he says he’s very experienced.
Dennis Cronin is one of two candidates for a Superior Court judicial seat. He’s running against a sitting judge, Shelley Szambelan.