About the only entity that has been around Yakima County Superior Court longer than James Gavin is the Aquavella water-rights case, whose final resolution awaits determination by the state Supreme Court. So it’s fitting that Gavin will hear the Aquavella case on a limited, part-time basis as he heads into retirement at age 70.
His colleagues last week honored his almost three decades of Superior Court service. Gavin retired as the state’s most senior judge at that level of the judicial system. And he has seen a lot of landmark cases come and go since his 1983 appointment by Gov. John Spellman.
In his first decade on the Superior Court, he dealt with cases that touched on some hot-button issues of the 1980s and early 1990s. A case in the 1980s that pitted the Selah School District against manufacturers and installers of asbestos drew national notice.
Soon afterward came two highly publicized murder cases: the trial of Herbert “Chief” Rice, who with Russell Duane McNeil was accused of the stabbing deaths of Mike and Dorothy Nickoloff in their Parker home in 1988; and the trial of Lorelle Merker, accused of shooting her husband in 1990. Both cases drew considerable publicity and serious discussion about whether the defendants could get a fair trial in Yakima County.
The senseless nature of the Nickoloff killings struck a chord at a time when Valley residents were on edge due to rising crime rates. Rice and McNeil both were 17 years old in a case that raised the issue of capital punishment for juvenile defendants. Rice was found guilty and is serving a life sentence without parole; the jury spared him the death penalty by a single vote. McNeil pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Merker claimed self-defense in the killing her husband, a dentist, in a case that called attention to the issue of domestic violence. She eventually was acquitted of all charges.
Throughout these emotional cases, Gavin won plaudits for his equanimity in handling emotional and potentially explosive cases. Gavin, who graduated from West Valley High School, was the sort of old-school, no-nonsense jurist who makes the judicial system work, which a standing-room-only gathering of colleagues recognized as they bid him adieu last week.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.