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Spokane Judicial Candidates Vie for a Spot on the Bench

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Spokane public defender Jocelyn Cook is challenging Tony Hazel for his seat on the Spokane County Superior Court bench.

There’s one race for judge on the Spokane County ballot this election season. Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel is trying to keep his seat. The governor appointed Hazel to the bench in late April after the death of Judge Sam Cozza. Hazel is challenged by county public defender Jocelyn Cook.

There’s an age-old question about whether judges should be appointed by politicians or elected by the people. Tony Hazel has gone through the first and, because he was appointed, now is required to go through the second.

“I don’t criticize the process. It’s in our constitution. It’s how the framers of the state of Washington set up this process and really I do think it’s more than fair because, at least the way I’ve been selected as a judge, I couldn’t think of a more rigorous way to vet a candidate,” he said.

Jocelyn Cook doesn’t like either option. Both, she says, are based on popularity.

“I think you have this political agenda to become a judge and then it’s like you’re a high school student. You sit on all the committees so you can get into college but you don’t have a heart for any of the committees you sat on. You just have a list of accolades and that’s not enough," Cook said. "A list of accolades doesn’t mean you have the work ethic, the care, the understanding that the job requires. And so that’s how you politically get the position; you just know the right people, shake the right hands, spend the right time and then it’s your turn.”

Judges in the federal system are appointed. At the county level, at some point, they have to go before voters. So, how should voters evaluate judges? Tony Hazel urges them to look at the candidates’ experience. He was a deputy prosecutor in Spokane and Yakima counties for 14 years, trying mostly criminal cases. He lists a significant number of endorsements from judges, attorneys and others in Spokane’s legal community.

“I think my resume far outshines my opponent, with all due respect to her," Hazel said. "And I think having the support of the legal community, overwhelming support of the legal community, should signal to the electorate that I have a good reputation, and that wasn’t just because of some popularity concept. It’s because I did competent work and my legal competence was recognized by the legal profession.”

Jocelyn Cook says the ideal way of picking judges involves a much deeper look at applicants. She thinks voters should ask candidates why are they running? Why do they care about being a judge?

“What is your feeling about how the law impacts people? What is your feeling about the authority you’ll have? And see if you get platitudes," Cook said. 

"Also, go to all of the forums. Watch someone in multiple forums. Take the time. They should be videotaped because then you will have people who will be forced to have one set of answers instead of multiple answers and multiple faces,” she said.

Cook began her career writing legal briefs for a Spokane lawyer who handled cases in appeals courts. Based on that experience, she decided to become a defense attorney.

“I was fortunate to really actually care about my clients at the same time," she said. "So it’s not just an idealistic position for me, it’s a practical application of the care that I have both for my clients and for the constitution.”

Cook says the county has many good judges, but she believes judicial positions have, in some cases, morphed from positions of service to positions of status.

“You have judges who stood next to the people who they’re serving and understand the ramifications of their decisions and if you don’t have that experience, if you haven’t held a baby while the mom is crying because her husband is going to prison. If you haven’t been in the hospital trying to meet someone, then I don’t know if you really have the impetus to be careful with your power," Cook said.

Tony Hazel says he liked being a trial lawyer, but he enjoys being a judge as well. He likes the challenge in the variety of cases he handles, both criminal and civil. He says there’s a reason why a great number of lawyers in the county support him.

“Lawyers, in particular, want judges who will follow the law because, if you think about it from the lawyer’s perspective, if you’re giving advice to a potential client, and you have a judiciary that just follows their personal whim, there’s no consistency and it really usurps the entire constitutional legal process and system that we have,” Hazel said.

Hazel won the August primary with more than 51% of the vote. Jocelyn Cook picked up nearly 25%.