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Candidates vying for the Yakima Superior Court Judge, Department 3, from left, Jeff Swan and incumbent Douglas Federspiel.

Yakima County Superior Court Judge Doug Federspiel, 57, says his fairness and hard work ethic are reasons voters should return him to the Department 3 bench.

“Providing every litigant with my promise that I will continue to work hard to be prepared for each and every case and to do my best to bring justice to a legal system,” he said.

His opponent, 51-year-old defense attorney Jeff Swan, questions Federspiel’s effectiveness on the bench. Swan points to an exceedingly high number of cases in which Federspiel had been disqualified from hearing by attorneys or their clients.

“The current judge is ineffective and not hearing his share of cases,” Swan said. “He is not getting decisions made in a decisive and timely manner.”

Yakima County has eight Superior Court judges serving four-year terms. They preside over an array of civil and criminal cases ranging from divorce and child custody to assault and murder. 

Federspiel is serving his second term in Superior Court.

Swan, a 25-year defense attorney with the county’s Office of Assigned Counsel, also questions whether Federspiel is fit to serve, and points to problems in his personal life as examples.

On July 9, 2018, a state patrol trooper found Federspiel standing midway on the Fred G. Redmon Bridge north of Yakima contemplating suicide. In September of that same year, he filed for bankruptcy.

“There are some concerns and it is time for change,” Swan said.

Federspiel assures voters that he’s fit to serve. He said most of the disqualifications were filed by a single attorney and the cases involved evictions.

Federspiel also said he followed recommended self-care guidelines after the incident on the bridge and that his bankruptcy was sparked by mounting medical bills of a family member suffering cancer.

“I don’t think the public should hold it against me,” he said during an editorial meeting with the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Disqualifications

Attorneys and their clients have the option of filing disqualifications, sometimes referred to as affidavits of prejudice, if they believe they will not receive a fair ruling from the assigned judge.

Federspiel had 539 disqualifications between January 2017 and July 2020. There were 719 disqualification filed overall in Yakima County Superior Court over that period, according to documents obtained by the Yakima Herald-Republic.

“That is three times more than all the other Superior Court judges put together,” Swan said. “What that really means to folks — it’s contributing to a court backlog. The department is not able to hear cases and that puts strain on other judges. It’s not good use of taxpayer money.”

Federspiel said the numbers are misleading. He said 475 of them were filed by Yakima attorney Craig Smith, who represents the Yakima Valley Landlords Association. He said they all involved unlawful detainers — evictions.

According to the documents, Federspiel had been disqualified in 462 cases involving unlawful detainers. The rest — 77 — involved criminal or civil cases.

Smith said he has routinely disqualified Federspiel over the years. Smith said he likes Federspiel on a personal level but doesn’t think he’s a good judge.

“My job is to represent my clients to the best of my ability,” Smith said. “I have to be an advocate for my clients and my clients expect me to win. It’s not just me. I don’t think he’s a good judge for my cases.”

Smith made his concerns about Federspiel known in a Yakima Herald-Republic letter to the editor published Oct. 8 supporting Swan.

Federspiel also said about 20 to 25 other disqualifications were filed by a judicial candidate he defeated in 2016, Sunnyside attorney Alex Newhouse. Federspiel said that leaves about 39 disqualifications — a figure he said was consistent with other judges.

Newhouse said he doesn’t believe he’s filed that many against Federspiel over the past four years.

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“I only disqualify a judge after speaking to a client about my concerns and then obtaining client approval, Newhouse said in an email. “It is a natural and expected consequence of the 2016 judicial race that some of my clients would prefer not to have a prior opponent of mine hear their case.”

During the editorial board meeting, Federspiel said using those statistics against him was underhanded.

“Deceptive at the least,” Federspiel said.

Bankruptcy

Federspiel field Chapter 13 bankruptcy in September 2018 and the matter is pending. Under Chapter 13, the debtor agrees to a court-ordered repayment plan and is allowed to retain certain assets.

Swan says a bankruptcy filing displays an inability to manage finances and voters should be concerned.

“There’s a concern with the amount of money a judicial officer makes and how they end up in financial straits,” Swan said.

Superior Court judges earn $199,674 a year.

Federspiel said he became overwhelmed by medical bills from a family member suffering cancer.

Federspiel has accumulated $148,516 in credit card debt and $1,970 in medical bills, according to his bankruptcy filing in U.S. District Court.

He said he used credit cards to pay much of the medical expenses.

“I needed to keep the medical bills paid,” Federspiel said. “Those paid through credit cards added up beyond my ability to repay on a cash-flow basis.”

Mental health

Federspiel said he’s taken all the required steps suggested by mental health experts after the incident on the Fred G. Redmon Bridge.

He was committed to a mental health facility for two weeks but was able to leave early. He also underwent a separate evaluation ordered by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct to determine whether he was fit to serve. He was cleared by the commission to return to the bench.

Swan said Federspiel walked out on a divorce case July 9, 2018, leaving without notice.

“He left folks who had prepared for a divorce trial,” Swan said. “He should have reached out for help at that time.”

Federspiel told the editorial board he’s doing fine.

“I took the necessary couple of weeks off,” he said.

Federspiel has been a judge for 10 years. He served two years in Yakima County District Court before being elected to the Superior Court in 2012.

“I never say I’ve seen it all, but I’ve seen enough to deserve another four years,” Federspiel said.

Swan has spent about half his career as a supervisor in the adult felony division with the past two years supervising attorneys in the juvenile felony division. He said he has 130 jury trials under his belt.

“And I think that’s one of the things that makes me qualified to be a judge,” he said.

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @philipferolito

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