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All eight judges who sit on the Yakima County Superior Court bench filed for reelection in May. Five judges had no opposition and will keep their seats for the next four years. Three judges drew opponents — two more than in 2016, when Judge Doug Federspiel successfully defended his seat against Sunnyside attorney Alex Newhouse.

Federspiel is on the ballot again this year, along with sitting Judges Elisabeth Tutsch and Blaine Gibson.

Department 2: Elisabeth Tutsch

Judge Elisabeth Tutsch has been a Superior Court judge since her appointment to the bench by Gov. Jay Inslee in April following the death of Judge Michael McCarthy. She had been a Superior Court commissioner for three years before becoming a judge. As an attorney, she spent 20 years specializing in housing and family law cases.

Her opponent, Bronson Faul, is senior assistant city attorney for the city of Yakima and has served as Selah’s municipal judge since 2015; he also was pro tem judge in Selah for a number of years. He is a former deputy prosecuting attorney for Yakima County.

Faul believes the Superior Court’s pretrial release system has lost its way and needs to be overhauled. What began as an avenue to help low-level offenders stay productive while awaiting trial has morphed into a system in which high-risk offenders are released with little or no supervision, he says. His concern is one reason why so many law enforcement officers support his candidacy, he says.

The program does require monitoring, Tutsch said, but she thinks it should be more robust. The system needs improvements, she said, but it’s a relatively new program and there are budget constraints, she said.

As a court commissioner who was appointed by Superior Court judges, Tutsch handled many of the same duties as those judges, including presiding over family law matters, dependency and mental health issues, along with unlawful detainer and probate cases, among other things. Of all six candidates for Superior Court judge, Tutsch had the most rankings of Highly Qualified or Well Qualified in the Yakima County Bar Association Poll. By all metrics, she has shown impartiality and a good head for the law during her short time on the bench, and we recommend voters elect her to a full four-year term.

Department 3: Jeff Swan

Judge Doug Federspiel can cite 10 years of judicial experience and an impressive legal resume prior to being a judge in his quest to retain his Superior Court post. In addition, he cites his fairness and work ethic as reasons voters should choose him. He compares the job of Superior Court judge to that of an emergency room physician: “Take anything and everything before you, assess it quickly, make decisions and move forward.”

By all indications, he is dedicated to his job, likes it and is active in the community. However, there are several factors that give us concern. It’s a tough call, but we believe Federspiel’s opponent, attorney Jeff Swan, is the better choice.

Swan is a senior supervising attorney for the Yakima County Department of Assigned Counsel, where he’s spent the past 25 years. He has been supervising attorneys in the juvenile felony division for the past two years and spent many years as supervisor of the adult felony division before that. He is a board member and past vice president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Judicial experience is not everything, said Swan, who noted that he appears almost daily in Superior Court. “I think that I’m ready right now,” he told the editorial board. “I have 130 criminal jury trials under my belt. This is nothing new for me.”

In questioning Federspiel’s fitness to serve, Swan and others point to a number of personal and professional issues.

  • In 2017, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct reprimanded Federspiel for soliciting endorsements for his 2016 campaign from subordinate court and county employees during work hours. Federspiel acknowledged the violation.
  • In July 2018, suffering a mental health crisis, Federspiel left the county courthouse during a break in a trial and drove north on Interstate 82 to the Fred G. Redmon Bridge north of Selah. There, Washington State Patrol officers found him next to the guardrail looking out at the canyon, contemplating suicide. Federspiel returned to the bench in September after receiving treatment and being deemed fit to serve. He told the editorial board that he has taken all the required steps suggested by mental health experts and that he is healthy.
  • The same month Federspiel returned to the bench, he filed for personal bankruptcy, citing mounting medical bills of a family member with cancer. Federspiel has accumulated $148,516 in credit card debt and $1,970 in medical bills, according to his bankruptcy filing. He used credit cards to pay much of the medical expenses, he said. Superior Court judges currently are paid $199,674 per year.
  • Federspiel is the subject of a comparatively high number of affidavits of prejudice and unlawful detainer petitions — attorneys who don’t want Federspiel to hear their case. The bulk of the 539 disqualifications he has faced since January 2017 were filed by one attorney; take away those filings, Federspiel said, and his numbers match up favorably with other judges.

Federspiel appeared in good health and defended his record to the editorial board. However, the factors above, joined with the fact that Judge David Elofson, Yakima County Superior Court’s presiding judge, has endorsed Swan after endorsing Federspiel in 2016, pushes us toward Swan as the better candidate in this race.

Department 4: Blaine Gibson

Judge Blaine Gibson is finishing up his 16th year on the Superior Court bench. He had spent 27 years in private practice before his election in 2004. His judicial experience is invaluable, he says, allowing him to move from one type of case to another seamlessly.

His challenger is attorney Scott Bruns, a contract public defender for Superior Court who has more than 35 years of criminal and civil trial attorney experience. He said the death of Judge Michael McCarthy in February is one factor in his quest for a judgeship; like Bruns, McCarthy was primarily a trial lawyer before becoming a judge. Bruns was critical of Gibson’s lack of trial experience as an attorney; Gibson countered that he had tried dozens of cases. The two had practiced law at one time in the same firm.

Bruns believes the court would be more efficient if a judge followed a case from beginning to end, rather than handling whatever daily tasks are put before him or her. Gibson didn’t disagree but said a case-management system requires dedicated staff to help, which would be impractical given Yakima County’s budgetary concerns. Both favor keeping the pretrial release program but acknowledge the need to seek ways to make it better.

Judicial experience isn’t always the biggest factor, but Gibson’s experience and versatility give him the edge in this race.