by Jack Mayne
Susan Mahoney has been thinking for some time about becoming a judge, but a recent situation where her opponent was disciplined by the state Supreme Court for being rude and abrupt prompted her to run now.
Mahoney says of her opponent, Judge Judith Eiler, “Her philosophy and mine could not be more different, her approach and mine cannot be more different.”
Judges are elected but most voters either do not vote for any of them because they know nothing about them, or vote for all on the ballot or just for the one or two they have heard of.
Judges are not permitted to directly raise money for campaigns, but must have campaign managers do it as a way of preventing real or imagined conflicts of interest over donors.
Mahoney is running for position two in the Southwest Electoral District, which includes Burien.
District Court hears a rather broad array of cases, including all criminal misdemeanors, including driving infraction such as speeding and driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol – anything punishable by a year or less in jail. It covers all unincorporated parts of the county and also for cities that contract for court services as the City of Burien does. The court hears most first appearances for felony charges, cases that are later before Superior Court judges.
In addition the court hears all disputed ticket cases, civil matters (rent, property and debt disputes) not over $75,000 and smaller personal injury cases and small claims cases. A major area for the court are protection orders where a person seeks that a husband or other person be ordered to stay away from them.
Mahoney is now the assistant city attorney for the City of Des Moines and a former deputy King County prosecuting attorney, as well as a private practice lawyer. Besides being in court in various roles, she has served as a pro-tem (temporary) judge in district courts.
She says she has been considering a judgeship for a while because she says our system is different for anywhere else in the world. All District Court judge must be lawyers.
“No system is perfect, and neither is our, but ours is the best system going,” she says. “It takes good and dedicated people committed to those ideals to continue a good justice system.
“District Court is the people’s court,” she says. “More people come into contact with that court than any other.”
She says District Court judges not only need good, sound legal knowledge “but also those who have a heart for dealing with people. You really have to have a degree of patience because of the high case loads, dealing with attorneys” and with those people acting in their own defense which happens often in this level of court.
Mahoney says many immigrants in the area are fearful of courts and police, and others do not trust the system of courts or simply do not understand how the court system operates, so judges must be understanding and help people to deal with the process. There is also the problem of people not speaking English well, or at all.
“Some may actually function incredibly well in a day-to-day basis, but when you put them into a foreign atmosphere, an intimidating atmosphere (a judge) needs to take the time with them,” she says. “You can’t present their case for them or advocate for them, but you can help them understand their situation as clearly as possible.”
The financial crisis affects the courts, she says. There are 26 judges in the King County District Court and the Legislature approved the addition of six more, but the county appropriated money for only four. The court had been cut back a few years ago for financial reasons, she says. With cuts in court services, judges will have to oversee probation matters, further impacting the work of a judge.
She says she is willing to put the time into the heavy workload, adding that she waited until now to run for a judicial job so her son to be old enough to fend more for himself. She is a single mother with a 14-year-old son.
Her opponent, District Court Judge Judith Eiler, has never been in court “except as a judge,” Mahoney says. “I have handled literally thousands of cases in court, as an advocate, either a defense attorney or a prosecutor, or as a judge. If you interrupt somebody, you are not moving a calendar along, you are slowing it down because people lose their train of thought, they get rattled and they are not able to move forward.
“I can move a court calendar along and still treat people well,” obviously referring to her opponent’s recent five-day suspension for using terms such as “stupid” and “idiot” for the bench, interrupting and intimidating people before her.
Mahoney says the courtroom can be managed in a civil way and still move the process.
A judge can start off by setting time limits for people, telling them things the judge needs to know and then ask questions if further information is needed, all without intimidating people.
Because of the system that judges are assigned to wherever needed, Judge Eiler does not sit in the Burien court but downtown in the courthouse.