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Court commissioner, deputy prosecutor compete for Spokane judicial seat

Savanna Rothe/Spokane Public Radio and courtesy of Jenny Zappone
Eric Dooyema and Jenny Zappone

Eric Dooyema, Jenny Zappone run for seat to be vacated by retiring Judge Donna Wilson.

On Monday we introduced you to two candidates competing for an open seat in Spokane County District Court. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the other open seat on the court and the two candidates running for that.

Eric Dooyema and Jenny Zappone hope to replace Donna Wilson.

Hear Eric Dooyema with SPR's Doug Nadvornick.

Dooyema has been a commissioner in the District Court for about four years.

You’re a court commissioner. How is that different from being a judge?

“The easy answer is, in Spokane County District Court, it really isn’t any different," Dooyema said. "The judges have always treated me like the ninth judge. I do the same job they do. Really, the only difference is because I’m not an elected judge, I don’t really have a say in if they’re making policy decisions or things like that.”

Dooyema says the court has loaned him out to courts in neighboring counties as a fill in when they have cases that need to be heard.

His time as an attorney included work as a Spokane County public defender and in his private solo practice. But he prefers being a judge.

“I always give this dumb joke and it’s not really that funny, but it’s kind of true," Dooyema said. "I always say I wasn’t a very good lawyer and what I mean by that is I always wanted to come to the right answer. As a lawyer, you’re hired to be on one side of a case or another and I was always much more concerned about what’s the right answer and not necessarily what was the right answer for my client.”

Like the other candidates we’re interviewing, Dooyema wouldn’t bite when we asked him policy questions, like should Spokane County build a new jail. And he understands it frustrates voters because it doesn’t give them information with which to evaluate judicial candidates.

“The most common question, by far, is are you a Republican or a Democrat? I’m sorry, I can’t answer that, it’s unethical. And I try to explain that you don’t want to know. From my perspective, it undermines the integrity of the court. It’s my job to stay neutral. It’s my job to set aside my personal beliefs when there’s a case in front of me," he said.

Hear Jenny Zappone with SPR's Doug Nadvornick.

Dooyema’s opponent is Jenny Zappone. She says she supervises about 20 people in the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office, some of them attorneys who try general felony cases. The others are victim advocates. She works with police to determine which cases to send to court and still argues a few cases herself.

“At this point in my career, I’ve handled behavioral health issues, supervising our behavioral health unit. I’ve worked with children and I’ve worked prosecuting some of the most violent offenders in town," she said.

Now she says she’s ready to serve as a judge.

“I want to instill faith in our justice system. I want people to know that it’s fair. I want people to know that when they come before me, they’re going to get a fair shake and that each person is going to be recognized and be shown dignity. I think a lot of people feel like they’re not heard in our justice system, from victims, even to defendants, they don’t feel heard," Zappone said.

Spokane County’s criminal justice system is in a state of reform. It has received millions in private money from the MacArthur Foundation over the last few years to find ways to reduce the disparities that keep greater percentages of people of color in custody than white defendants.

Zappone says some of the changes show promise. But she says there’s still work to be done.

“With the MacArthur grant, it focuses a lot on defendants. It focuses on getting them to court, text messaging and all those other factors," she said.

Zappone says she wants more attention and resources focused on crime victims.

“Victims potentially don’t have resources to get to court. So creating that access to the justice system is where we need to improve, especially with victims," she said.

Jenny Zappone and Eric Dooyema are running for an open Spokane County District Court seat.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.