Candidates vying for the Yakima Superior Court Judge, Department 4, from left, Scott Bruns and incumbent Blaine Gibson.

Judge Blaine Gibson, 70, says he wants to continue serving in Department 4 of the Yakima County Superior Court because he enjoys helping people resolve civil matters and loves the nature of his job.

“If we didn’t have judges, we’d settle stuff with fists and guns — we wouldn’t have a civilized society,” he said. “So there’s a deeper satisfaction of being part of that system and knowing that you’re part of a system that is one of the fundamental assets of our society.”

His opponent, 63-year-old defense attorney Scott Bruns, says change is needed on the bench. He says Gibson isn’t handling a fair share of cases and didn’t acquire adequate experience as a trial attorney to effectively serve on the bench.

“I realized Blaine is a weakness on the bench and I don’t think he’s been pulling his weight,” Bruns said. “I haven’t heard of him being on the criminal docket in a long time. Frankly, I don’t think he’s carrying his weight.”

Gibson disagrees. He said he did refrain from presiding over long trials while serving as president of the state’s Superior Court Judges’ Association, but that was about it.

“He’s just kind of looking at that one three-year period,” Gibson said. “I still carried a full load.”

There are eight elected Superior Court judges in Yakima County. They are paid $199,675 a year, and handle civil disputes including divorce and child custody matters as well as criminal cases ranging from felony theft to assault and homicide.

Gibson v. Bruns

With nearly 16 years on the bench, Gibson says he is one of the most tenured Superior Court judges in the state and that’s why voters should return him to the position.

Bruns has spent 35 years as a trial attorney and is a full-time contract defense attorney for Yakima County’s Office of Assigned Council.

He said the court system needs judges who will provide strong case management, and that his experience of being a trial attorney has given him better understanding of how cases develop and how to handle them more efficiently.

“A case should be assigned to a judge from beginning to end, just as is done now in Juvenile Court,” he said. “It’s that personal oversight that keeps the cases moving and allows justice to be speedy and fair because the parties won’t get lost in and ground down by a heartless bureaucratic justice system.”

He and Gibson worked for the same law firm — McArdle, Dohn, Talbott and Simpson — early in their careers.

There, Bruns said, Gibson hardly touched a case that went to trial.

“I was the one who tried all the cases,” Bruns said of that time. “That understanding is important to understand all aspects of a trial.”

Bruns goes as far as to say Gibson also lacks experience in criminal cases, saying he primarily handles civil cases.

“Blaine has never handled criminal cases — he never has,” Bruns said. “I’m sorry, you’re hired as a judge to handle both criminal and civil cases.”

Gibson refuted Bruns on both accounts.

“That is absolutely false,” Gibson said. “I had about 40 trials, most of them jury trials, during my first two years of practice. I was a litigator for 27 years. I tried many, many cases.”

Gibson said he’s presided over his share of criminal cases during his time on the bench and as of late has been on the civil docket rotation.

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He said Bruns’ experience as a defense attorney in itself doesn’t provide him the skills needed as a judge.

“His job is to punch holes in the prosecutor’s case,” Gibson said. “Criminal defense attorneys don’t care if their clients committed crime and that’s fine. But a judge’s job is to find the truth.”

Pretrial release program

Gibson said he supports the county’s pretrial release program, which allows certain suspects to be released without bail while awaiting trial.

Judges are provided an assessment tool and criminal history of suspects to determine whether they are a flight risk or a threat to the public.

Gibson says the program protects the constitutional rights of suspects by eliminating the chance of unreasonable bail amounts being set for those who have little income.

The program allows those suspected of low-level crimes to maintain their jobs, family and homes while awaiting trial.

“They have a much better chance of getting their lives back on track than if they’re stuck in jail for a year,” Gibson said.

Bruns also sees promise in the program.

“It’s not perfect, and there are violators, however, it’s better than what existed before,” he said. “That was a system of ad hoc assessments of people without any objective criteria. It was essentially based upon the whim of the judge as to how much bail should be set at.”

Therapeutic courts

Gibson also favors the specialty courts that help suspects focus on root cause of why they commit crimes. Drug court, mental health court and family court are examples.

“I know that particularly the mental health and drug courts have been successful,” he said. “If you can address the root causes, the substance abuse, mental health, you have a much better chance of keeping them out of jail.”

Bruns also supports the efforts behind therapeutic courts, even though not everyone who enters those programs is successful.

Those courts give people the guidance and structure to put their lives back on track, he said.

“Think of it as probation oversight before the conviction,” he said. “The consequence of their failure to comply makes for the strongest motivation to succeed. The ones who don’t come back before the court make the effort worthwhile.”

Campaign financing

Gibson as of Wednesday had raised $13,121 and spent $2,121. He’s contributed $11,000 of his own money, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission website.

Bruns as of Wednesday had raised $3,710, acquired $3,910 in loans and spent $5,360. He’s contributed $1,800 of his own money, the PDC website said.

This story has been updated to correct the number of years Scott Bruns has served as a trial lawyer.

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