Judge Triplet Has Died

Dear Group,

Who was Judge Triplet? Why am I announcing his passing? The Spokesman article last Friday (October 26) informs me he was an honest and decent man, a skilled jurist committed to fair application of the law. Surely the Spokesman account is accurate. I have no information to the contrary. I’ve never had any dealings with the “Superior Court.” 

Yes, the article was accurate. But did the Spokesman provide the orientation I’ve now come to crave? 

As I read the article on Judge Triplet’s passing, questions came to mind: How many people will read this? Of those who do, how many know what the Superior Court does? How many judges serve on it? How will the hole this good man’s passing leaves be filled? How does this gap relate to the judgeships on which I just voted? Why the hell does it seem too much to ask for the local newspaper to provide this orientation as part of their coverage, coverage that could educate citizens trying to understand civics and its importance to their daily lives?

Is it any wonder I read the Spokesman article on Judge Triplet more as an obituary than as information I can use? 

So here’s the backstory, all obtained from the comfort of my laptop:

Judge Triplet served in Department 2 (of 12 funded Departments aka “Positions” as they are called on your ballot) of the Superior Court of Spokane County. The twelve judges on the Superior Court hear cases from Spokane County concerning: 

• Civil matters

• Domestic relations

• Felony criminal cases

• Juvenile matters

• Appeals from courts of limited jurisdiction

The “Courts of Limited Jurisdiction” are the Spokane County District Courts and the City of Spokane Municipal Courts, where non-felony cases involving limited amounts of money and limited jail terms are heard. There is a nice diagram of much of this here.

Judge Triplet’s untimely death at age 55 leaves a gap in a very busy court, a gap that Governor Jay Inslee will appoint someone to fill “until the position is filled by voters in a countywide election.” Come on, Spokesman, when? The next regular election next fall? A special election? How does that work? How about a little civics? 

Here’s another part the Spokesman doesn’t touch: Michelle “Shelley” D. Szambelan was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee just this year (2018) to Department (“Position”) 10 of the Spokane County Superior Court. Inslee chose among a number of well-qualified candidates, Ms. Szambelan and Dennis Cronin among them. We are now asked to vote between these two in the current election. Mr Cronin indicated at the time of the appointment he would run for the seat this fall. Had he not run Ms. Szembelan would have stood for election only in 2020. By all accounts I can read both of them are will qualified for the position.

Will Governor Inslee appoint to the newly vacant Position 2 the candidate with the lower vote count of what is likely going to be a close race for Position 10? Will Inslee wait until the voting is done to announce his choice? How will this work? Stay tuned.

Ordinarily there aren’t a lot of challengers for seats in the various courts in the State of Washington. Incumbency is powerful, unless a judge does something that is egregious and newsworthy. Of course, part of the reason for that is that most of us (including me) have only a rudimentary understanding of the court system…and information on the folks who are running for these seats can be pretty scant. 

In that vein, let’s take a brief look at “Judge” Brandt, running against Patrick Johnson for an open seat in Position 1 on the Spokane County District Court Bench (one tier below the Spokane County Superior Court). First, Brandt was a judge, but he is not now, so running as “Judge” Brandt is at least questionable and arguably an outright deception. Second, he was never elected as a judge. He was appointed to a different position on the District Court (#7) in 2011 by the Spokane County Commissioners and then, in spite of incumbency (and Spokesman endorsement), he was voted out in a race against challenger Aimee Maurer in 2014 by a nearly 3% margin. In the current race I voted for Patrick Johnson. He’s relatively young, late 40s. If history is a guide, he will serve a long time.

Some random take-aways:

1) Newspapers that still do print versions could be more useful and interesting if they provided a little more context, if they quit assuming their readers know the background.

2) The Washington State judicial system is multi-layered and worthy of some study.

3) Judges, once elected, are not often challenged and even less often bested in an election. When they are (as with Judge Brandt) perhaps it says something.

4) Interim vacancies on the Spokane County Superior Court are filled by appointment by the Governor. Interim vacancies on the Spokane County District Court are filled by appointment by the Spokane County Commissioners. What is the history behind that, I wonder?

5) The State Supreme and Appeals Court Judges serve on 6 year terms. All the other judges (County Superior, County District, and Municipal [City of Spokane]) serve 4 year terms.

I should have learned all this in a civics class in my youth. Maybe I did, but a half century later it is all a bit rusty. It bears review–and our local newspaper could help.

And, now, after this short civics lesson: Get out and canvass! There are only nine days to flip this thing.

Keep to the high ground,