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New judge takes seat with busy Spokane County Superior Court

New Spokane County Superior Court Judge Dean Chuang.
Submitted photo/Gov. Jay Inslee's office
New Spokane County Superior Court Judge Dean Chuang.

Dean Chuang is the first person to occupy a judicial seat the Washington Legislature authorized in the late 1990s.

Spokane attorney Dean Chuang became the Spokane County Superior Court’s 13th judge Monday.

“I think it’s a pinnacle of one’s legal career to become a judge,” Chuang said in an interview with Spokane Public Radio. “Making important decisions that can affect people financially, jail time, parenting, things like that – the seriousness of the job.”

Chuang is the first person to occupy a judicial seat that has existed on paper since the Clinton administration. That’s when the Washington Legislature authorized the county to add a 13th judge. Since then, county judicial officials have lobbied Spokane County Commissioners to actually fund the position, arguing local caseloads have grown faster than the court system’s ability to adjudicate them.

In 2022, the Spokane County Superior Court said its total pending caseload had increased nearly 79 percent since the year 2000. The system had too few judges and too little courtroom space to adequately hear cases, the court said.

“Our community and taxpayers deserve timely access to justice. State and federal constitutions require it,” the Superior Court said in a written report. “The Court is at a breaking point and has begun triaging which cases receive the limited resources and which must wait even longer for justice.”

But Spokane County commissioners balked at funding the position until last spring, over concerns about the potential cost of salary and support staff.

Chaung acknowledges his arrival will not solve the Spokane County Superior Court’s backlog problem, but he thinks it will aid the overburdened system.

“It’s just a sheer math game, with so many cases, so many judges, so many courtrooms,” Chuang said. “I think we probably need three or four more judges to help out with caseloads. But I’ll do my small part. I’ll jump in wherever I can help.”

Chaung will have work to do on his first day, but no courtroom in which to hear full jury cases. Ashley Callan, the Superior Court’s administrative officer, said Chaung has no major cases assigned yet, but will be able to handle plea and sentencing hearings immediately.

Moving from being an advocate to being a neutral arbiter is a big change, Chuang said. It will likely change his relationships with area attorneys – people who used to be peers but will now be counsel in his court.

“I think it’s more of an isolating type of role,” Chuang said. “I’m going to have to put any personal relationships aside and decide any case with the law and the facts. I don’t think I’m going to be able to hang out with a lot of lawyers…you can still have relationships with them, but it’s going to be a different type of working relationship.”

Later this month, Chuang will attend training for new judges offered by the Washington Administrative Office of Courts. The program, likened to a school for judges, is required for newly-appointed members of the bench. Chaung will be joined by former Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who was appointed to the Superior Court last summer. The group will also include three other Spokane County judges and two court commissioners.

Chuang was an attorney with Spokane law firm Cracy, Chuang & Domanico, where he was also a partner. His legal background includes civil and criminal cases. He served as a contract public defender in Kennewick, and has participated in legal outreach projects. He is an Army veteran, having served in Syria and Iraq, and is a current member of the U.S. Army Reserve. He earned his law degree at Gonzaga.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for nearly twenty years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.