By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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Two decades later, the distinguished jurist and father of the county's successful drug courts is leaving on his own terms, hanging up his gavel exactly when he envisioned.
Williams announced in March that he would step down as one of three Superior Court judges at the end of this year. He was lauded in ceremonies at the county courthouse Tuesday and Thursday.
In retirement, Williams plans to travel with his wife of 40 years, Janet, and spend more time with his four grandchildren.
“We've raised three kids that I adore as adults,” Williams said in adult drug court Thursday.
“It would be hard to be unhappy when life treats you that well.”
Two months ago, Williams became the first recipient of the Washington State Association of Drug Court Professionals' Lifetime Achievement Award.
He is credited with shaping the Clallam County drug courts, diversion programs that were ahead of their time in the late 1990s.
“Judge Williams leaves behind a legacy of drug court, which is a tremendous achievement, but I believe it's unfair to think of him only in this regard,” Clallam County Superior Court Judge George L. Wood told the three county commissioners Tuesday.
“I've seen a man of integrity, fairness and courage, who always strived to reach a just and proper result. I believe this is the true legacy he leaves behind.”
Wood, who was also elected in 1992, said Williams “will be greatly missed by me and by the community.”
Superior Court Judge S. Brooke Taylor added: “He has brought great wisdom to our bench.”
“He has been a mentor to me in the five years that I have served by his side,” Taylor said. “I am going to miss his advice and his friendship a great deal.”
Taylor added: “The county is losing a really superb public servant.”
Williams, 66, of Port Angeles, led a local effort to secure a $600,000 federal grant to start the county's juvenile drug court in 1997 — the first in the Pacific Northwest.
He also shepherded the formation of the adult drug court in 1999.
Drug courts are aimed at helping non-violent offenders break the cycle of addiction. Those who qualify are eligible to have their charges dismissed if they stay sober for at least a year and complete a rigorous treatment program and attend weekly hearings.
Proponents like Williams say drug courts save lives and taxpayer dollars by reducing recidivism.
More than a dozen past and present members of the drug court team — and a handful of drug court graduates and current enrollees — praised Williams for his courage, leadership, positive attitude and judicial acumen.
Recently-retired Drug Court Coordinator Preston Kayes recalled Williams saying: “I got tired of seeing people dying, and we have to try something different.”
“And he has been consistent with everybody,” Kayes said.
“He was always going to be supportive of you, as long as you were willing to try.”
Williams has presided over all 250 adult drug court graduations, including three last month.
“I've said this at lots of conferences,” Williams said. “Being a drug court judge is the best part of my professional life.”
Kayes and others recalled the political heat that Williams took from drug court skeptics in the early days of the program.
Defense attorney John Hayden, one of the last standing members of the original drug court team, said Williams fought those battles “with grace, with honor and with extreme courage.”
“He has been a leader in this drug court movement,” Kayes added.
“There are drug courts just everywhere we turn now. Judge Williams has been a leader.”
Two days earlier, county Commissioner Mike Doherty, who has known Williams for nearly four decades, fought back tears as he thanked the judge for his service.
“One of the agonies of being a judge is sometimes you take your work home with you, and you have murder trials, domestic violence, a lot of things that affect your life,” Doherty said.
“Hopefully Ken has always risen above that, but it's a great sacrifice as a human being to have those decisions.”
Williams said there were times when he did struggle with the power of his decisions.
“It's difficult, at times, to put it in its proper place when you get home,” he said.
“I have a wife who has been very patient and loving and caring, and helped me carry the burden of having a case echoing around in your head when you try and decide it.”
Commissioners Jim McEntire and Mike Chapman each thanked Williams for his “steady presence” on the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula.
Chapman said Williams “really moved the ball forward” this year on courtroom and courthouse security issues.
“Part of your legacy is the budget,” Chapman told Williams.
“We've added two part-time courtroom security officers. I think your leadership this year was huge in that.”
Williams announced his retirement early to allow potential candidates to consider running for Superior Court judge.
District Court No. 2 Judge Erik Rohrer and county Hearing Examiner Chris Melly emerged from a four-person primary in August, with Rohrer prevailing in the general election in November.
“I have tried many cases in Judge Williams' courtroom over the years,” Rohrer said in an email.
“He's a skilled jurist — bright, knowledgeable and meticulously careful. He also has a keen sense of humor.
“His work in establishing Clallam County's Drug Court is commendable. Having recently sat in on Judge Williams' Drug Court, it's obvious that the participants respect him and enjoy working with him.”
Rohrer will be sworn in as a Superior Court judge on Jan. 7 . State Supreme Court Justice Susan Owens will officiate the 2 p.m. ceremony.
“Judge Williams will be missed by everyone who worked with him, including other judges, court staff, attorneys and litigants,” Rohrer said.
“While I'm looking forward to moving to the Superior Court bench, I'm acutely aware that I have big shoes to fill.”
Williams graduated with a law degree from the University of Washington in 1974. He served as the Sequim city attorney from 1977 to 1992. He was past president of the Clallam County Bar Association and state Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Williams praised his fellow judges and the entire Superior Court staff.
“I have been blessed to work with coworkers and colleagues who are simply the best — bright, energetic, caring and dedicated public servants,” Williams wrote in his resignation statement.
He closed his remarks to the commissioners by thanking the Clallam County citizens who “gave me the great privilege and honor of serving them” for five terms.
“I just hope that I've done a good job for them,” he said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.