Voters Tuesday elected Debra Burchett, M. Jamie Imboden and John Hays to Cowlitz District Court judge positions, introducing three new faces to bench.
The three will chart a new course for the bench for years to come, as the District Court’s two longtime sitting judges are both retiring at the end of the year. Current judges David Koss and Ed Putka will leave behind a combined four decades of experience.
Burchett, 63, and her supporters sign-waved and door-belled extensively around the county in her campaign to shake up what she called a “same-old, same-old” legal culture.
“What a lot of people forget is that it’s the community that votes. It’s not the legal community. It’s not the medical community. It’s the people,” Burchett said Tuesday night. “And the people are the ones who wanted a change and gave us our vote.”
Burchett captured 53.6 percent of the vote, besting Kevin Blondin 13,080 to 11,322.
Burchett campaigned on her experience in public defense, prosecution and pro tem service on the bench. She said her aim is to help people and “change lives” instead of merely adjudicating cases.
Blondin, 45, had the most hours of experience as a substitute judge on the District Court bench, as well as the endorsement of Judge Putka and the plurality of votes from his peers in the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum bar poll. With 18 years of criminal defense experience, he cast himself as a competent, experienced, “vanilla” candidate for the position.
However, the Blondin’s 2012 arrest on suspicion of driving while intoxicated following a single-car accident and later pleaded guilty to negligent drivers may have struck a sour note with voters.
Blondin could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
For position 2, Imboden, 46, won 62 percent of the vote in defeating Corey Larson. A defense and civil attorney, Imboden said he had more than 200 hours of pro tem judging experience.
He’d worked with the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Legal Aid for 16 years and picked up endorsements from all five sitting Superior Court Judges, Judge Putka, a majority of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum bar and the local Democrats and Republicans.
“I think in my race what it really came down to was experience on the bench,” Imboden said Tuesday night. “What I bring to the table is the most experience in the civil law side of things.”
Larson, 58, brought an unorthodox career experience to the ballot: In his seven years as an administrative law judge at the Department of Licensing, he’s adjudicated at least 3,000 cases over whether to revoke a defendant’s driver’s licence. In those hearings, he reviews probable cause, calls witnesses and looks over evidence admitted to him.
In position 3, Hays finished with 65 percent of the votes, defeating Tom Ladouceur by 14,888 to 8,062.
Hays, 64, touted his 30 years of legal experience and cases he’s argued in front of the Washington Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Endorsed by all five sitting Superior Court judges and two-thirds of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum bar poll voters, he said one of his goals would be delivering both justice and “the perception of justice.”
Ladouceur, 60, is the chief criminal deputy at the prosecutor’s office. In the race, he emphasized the many hats he’s worn in Cowlitz County, including private practice, public defender and his current role, where he handles serious felony cases like murders.
Hays said his endorsements were the defining factor in his race.
“One of the things I’ve said when I’ve spoken to people in the different forums is that it’s difficult to pick a judge because you don’t know them,” Hays said, noting that judges cannot take a stance on political issues. He said he encourages voters to ask lawyers and other judges what they think of candidates.
“They can look at those judges and say, ‘These are the people who know the candidate,’ “ Hays said.
As District Court judges, Burchett, Imboden and Hays will oversee implementation of the recently funded community court; the county commissioners approved $26,000 for the court in a 2-1 vote in October. That court will offer an alternative to jail time for low-level offenses such as shoplifting, indecent exposure, or trespassing. Housing inmates in jail costs about $80 per day, per inmate.