Before Patricia Fassett began her career as an attorney in Cowlitz County, she was a self-professed sports geek hoping to land a gig representing a team or college athletics department.
“I was hoping that I’d be working at some school so I could watch sports for free,” Fassett said.
Now, she’ll be serving on the highest court in Cowlitz County.
The veteran of both the county prosecutor’s office and office of public defense said Friday she’s “still in a little bit of shock” after being appointed Feb. 28 by Gov. Jay Inslee to replace Anne Cruser as a judge on the Cowlitz County Superior Court.
She takes office on March 22 and will be sworn in March 28. She has worked at the county Office of Public Defense since 2011. Cruser was appointed Feb. 15. to the state Court of Appeals Division II.
Fassett said she was encouraged to apply by one of the sitting Superior Court judges even though she has no experience as a judge. But as a lawyer, she has handled some high-profile murder cases and worked both sides of the courtroom. Her appointment to the bench is the latest plateau in a legal journey that began at the bottom of the justice system.
“I was very excited and honored,” said Fassett, 41. “I’m nervous, but I’m hopeful that I’ll do a really good job.”
Her coworkers at the office of public defense felt similarly: They decorated her office with of balloons and flowers after her appointment. And her soon-to-be fellow Superior Court judges called her an exceptionally hard worker and said they’re excited to have her join them on the court.
“She is an intelligent person with a great background that is very applicable to what we do here,” Superior Court Judge Marilyn Haan said. “I think she will do an excellent job.”
Judge Michael Evans said despite Fassett’s lack of experience as a judge, she’s a fast learner and has the right temperament for the bench.
“It’s something you don’t teach somebody,” Evans said. “When I’ve watched her doing juvenile cases, a lot of times we’ll finish them up and have paperwork that needs to be reviewed. She’s always very thorough (and) takes the time to make sure the kids understand, even though there are pressures to move (them) along. I think that’s really healthy for the system. That’ll be a great asset to her and the community.”
Superior Court judges handle all felony criminal cases, civil cases involving real property, probate and marital disputes and appeals from lower courts or state administrative agencies. The court hears more than 6,000 cases per year, about a third of which are criminal. The court has historically struggled to keep up with rising caseloads and is increasingly relying on diversion programs such as drug and mental health courts to rehabilitate repeat offenders.
Cruser was appointed as the county’s fifth Superior Court Judge in 2017 as part of a push by the county to reduce the court’s backlog, and Fassett said she aims to continue that work.
Fassett, who was born in Wyoming and moved to Arizona as a child, didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do when she graduated from the University of Oregon in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies.
So like many philosophy majors, she considered law school. She started by taking a job as a bailiff in Arizona, which put her in charge of taking fingerprints and aiding juries.
“It gave a very unique perspective to the system,” she said.
Her interest piqued, Fassett entered Marquette University Law School in Wisconsin, where she would go on to serve as president of the Association of Women in Law.
The school had a renowned sports law program, leading to her interest in representing a team or university athletic department. She never expected to do criminal law. But after her dad transferred to Longview from Arizona for work, she started coming home to Longview rather than Phoenix on holidays.
Her parents’ neighbor had connections to the prosecutor’s office, which offered her an internship after she graduated.
She worked as a county prosecutor from 2005 through 2009, but she transferred to the office of public defense in 2011. As a public defender, she’s represented high-profile defendants such as Sergey Fedoruk and Ryan Adams, men both charged with murder in unrelated cases.
“As a defense attorney, you get to know the individual more. It’s more than just a snapshot of this person’s life,” she said, “As a prosecutor, you’re working for the victims and the public. They both have very important roles.”
The appointment will be a change of pace for Fassett, who has not worked in a judicial capacity before but has years of experience on both sides of criminal cases.
“It’s hard to reflect on your career when you’re working as a prosecutor or public defender, because you move from one case to another so quickly,” she said. “Your to-do box, your inbox, is never empty.”
Her expertise lies in juvenile law, which she said is often overlooked or seen as a “training ground” for new attorneys.
“These are people that are going to be moving on, hopefully not into the adult system,” she said. “The pillars of the juvenile justice system revolve around rehabilitation. It’s a unique opportunity for attorneys to ... try to find ways, other than punitive ways, to address issues.”