Tens of thousands of people cycle through Spokane County District Court every year. Many judges and attorneys dub it the “people’s court.” It’s the venue where traffic cases, misdemeanors and simple felonies are heard.
Judge Vance Peterson is vacating his seat on the bench. Two men are vying to replace him, including one former judge.
Patrick Johnson has been trying cases in the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office for 20 years. His current assignment is prosecuting chronic offenders in the Superior Court.
“Those folks in the community who have more than nine felony convictions, so the folks who are committing the most crime," Johnson said.
Johnson also has a second job. He’s been a defense attorney, representing soldiers in the military’s Judge Advocate General Corps for 17 years. That requires him to make a shift in his approach from his regular role. He says he’s watched some what he considers are Spokane’s better defense attorneys as he developed his own style.
“I’ve been dealing with Bevan Maxey, who I think is a great lawyer. But one of the things I liked about Bevan is sometimes he knew he didn’t have a good case and he’d come to me and say, ‘Look, what can we do here?’ and just being up front and I took that approach, being a defense attorney in the Army, and I think the Army prosecutors really appreciated that,” Johnson said.
He believes that experience both trying and defending defendants gives him a unique perspective as a potential judge.
Another reason he’s running for the District Court bench is related to whom he would replace. Johnson says Vance Peterson is the only military veteran on the bench. Peterson created and presides over the county’s Veterans Court. Johnson thinks it’s important that a veteran replace Peterson.
“Somebody who has military experience would have more credibility going into the program. It’s easier for a military person to relate," he said. "I’ve watched Judge Peterson go through his docket and he can tell a military person, ‘Ok, I see you were 11-Bravo.’ Who knows what 11-Bravo means? Most people don’t serve in the military. They don’t know that 11-Bravo is the MOS, the military occupational skill for infantry in the Army. And Judge Peterson gets that.”
Johnson’s opponent is former District Court Judge Randy Brandt. In 2011, he was appointed to a seat. Three years later, he lost in his bid for re-election. It’s a job that still appeals to him.
“I love the fast pace of the District Court. Most of our trials would last one, two, maybe three days on a rare case. But usually you could hear a case in the morning and a case in the afternoon, as opposed to the judges on the Superior Court, where you can have two, three, six-week trials. I have just never had an interest in that,” Brandt said.
Brandt is a relative latecomer to the legal field. He served in construction and real estate, moonlighting as a law student. Thirty years ago, he passed his bar exam and began practicing, focusing in part on real estate.
“And I got a lot of good trial experience. In that time I did about 25,000 real estate closings. That flows out of my real estate background. It just seemed a natural course for me,” Brandt said.
To be a judge, he means. Five years after being admitted to the bar, at the earliest time allowable, he applied to become a pro tem, or temporary, judge. He says he considers it his vocational calling. He served 10 years as a pro tem and also as a court commissioner in District Court and a judge for the state in administrative proceedings.
Now, four years removed from being a judge, he’s still touting his years on the bench.
“I’ve used an example. If you’re on a trans-Atlantic flight, you’re on your way to England and past the point of no return, and you have two of four engines going out, now you’ve got another engine go out, so you’re a single-engine. You want a guy that’s been sitting, a pilot, you want him sitting in the left seat that’s got 21 years’ experience? Or someone who’s never even been in the cockpit?” Brandt asked.
Patrick Johnson won a tight three-way race in the August primary, collecting about 39% of the vote. Brandt was second with 36%.
You can hear our full interviews with all the candidates on our website at Spokane Public Radio dot org. Click on the regional news tab and then on the 2018 election link.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported Brandt had won the primary. We apologize and have fixed the error.