The Hon. F. James Gavin has been around a long time. In fact, he’s been around so long that he remembers a predecessor on the Yakima County Superior Court bench from the 1920s.
Now, it’s not like Gavin himself was around in the Roaring Twenties. Far from it.
But he has been around since 1967, when he graduated from the University of Washington School of Law. It was around that time that he encountered V.O. Nichosin, who was judge from 1921 to 1929 and was still practicing law almost 40 years later.
“He would come in (to the courthouse) and file writs and whatnot,” Gavin recalled. “I think he must have been in his late 80s, maybe even 90. Old, anyway.”
At 70, Gavin’s not nearly that old. But he did retire Friday. Few knew it, but after almost 30 years on the bench, Jim Gavin was the state’s most senior Superior Court judge. That honor now passes to the Hon. Evan E. Sperline of Grant County.
During a standing-room-only farewell ceremony at the courthouse, colleagues current and former gently roasted the old-school jurist, who took his medicine from an unlikely place: the witness stand. Among the attendees were U.S. Magistrate Judge James Hutton and state Appeals Court Judge Stephen M. Brown, both veterans of the Yakima County bench.
“I don’t think he’s ever been reversed on appeal,” Judge Susan Hahn, now the county’s senior jurist, joked during the ceremony. “We’ll be the judge of that,” quipped Hutton.
Also in attendance was Gavin’s wife of 53 years, Eileen, and his mother, Veda Gavin, who is 97. His daughter, Kristen Schoonhoven, a Yakima kindergarten teacher, was there too. His son, Army Staff Sgt. Kirkland “Kirk” Gavin, served two tours in Iraq, and is currently stationed in Texas. He was unable to attend.
The son of the late John Gavin, Esq., Gavin will continue on a limited, part-time basis to hear the ponderous Aquavella case, a decades-long court battle intended to help settle water rights issues in the Yakima Basin. His spot on the bench is being taken by District Judge Douglas Federspiel, who ran unopposed for the open seat last year.
In an interview earlier in the day with the Yakima Herald-Republic, Gavin reflected on some of the changes he’s seen over his career, especially as a jurist.
Looking back on his career, Gavin said the biggest negative he’s seen has been an increase in the workload, compounded by a decrease in support staff due to budget cuts.
When he first took the bench, Gavin said the county’s five Superior Court judges (there are eight now) shared two full-time legal secretaries and one part-timer. And they all had their own bailiffs.
Now they have no aides, and bailiffs are called in when there is a trial. “The workload is pressing — o-pressing, maybe,” he said.
It almost goes without saying that Superior Court judges don’t have law clerks, either, a fact that put even more pressure on Gavin during groundbreaking litigation in the late 1980s involving asbestos and the Selah school district.
Gavin counts the case as one of his career highlights. Asbestos lawsuits were all the rage at the time, and his rulings were being watched across the country for potential precedence.
“I can’t remember how many attorneys there were. A lot,” he said. “We put in tables for counsel in place of the pews in the courtroom.”
On the criminal side of things, he cites the case of Lorelle Merker, accused of murder in the 1990 shooting of her dentist husband, as one of his most memorable.
And then of course there is the trial of Herbert “Chief” Rice in the Nickoloff murders, which he presided over and remains concerned about all these years later.
Rice and fellow suspect Russell Duane McNeil were both 17 years old in January 1988 when they stabbed to death Mike and Dorothy Nickoloff in their farm home in the Parker area. The slayings coincided with an explosion in the Valley’s crime rate, and the attack is routinely cited as a defining moment in the region’s history. By a single vote, Rice avoided the death penalty and is currently serving life sentence, with no possibility of parole.
Gavin said he’s worried about the Rice case because the Washington State Supreme Court has a habit of changing the rules, he said, which in turn has a habit of voiding convictions.
In particular, he’s concerned about a ruling by the high court two years ago that overturned a 2006 murder conviction in a different Yakima County case on the basis that the trial was held in a courtroom in the county jail, which the high court felt was prejudicial to the defendant.
In his view, gained from years of handling juries at the trial level, Gavin said jurors take their responsibility to be fair seriously. And they are not so dumb as to not know that defendants, particularly murder defendants, are probably in custody and probably considered dangerous.
“You can’t foresee some of these rulings” on appeal, he said, adding quietly, “We’ve had some other people tried over there (in the county jail). Chief Rice was one of them.”
As for his own experience with juries, Gavin noted he once served on a jury in a civil case only weeks before he was appointed judge.
Asked if he served as foreman, he said he did.
“I said I didn’t want to be,” he remembered, “and they elected me anyway.”
• Chris Bristol can be reached at 509-577-7748 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ChrisJBristol.