PORT ANGELES — After squaring off during a dozen forums since May in their quest for an elected Clallam County District Court 1 judicial position, Dave Neupert and Suzanne Hayden presented their arguments in a public venue for the last time Tuesday, a week before the initial tally of votes in the Nov. 6 general election.
Neupert presented himself as the voice of experience, and Hayden as the voice of change.
They parried during an hourlong question-and-answer session at the Port Angeles Business Association breakfast meeting, also the organization’s last in a series of annual election forums.
Neupert, a lawyer for the Peninsula Housing Authority, and Hayden, a public defender for county Juvenile Court, are running for the four-year, Port Angeles-area position being vacated by four-term incumbent Rick Porter, who is not seeking re-election.
“District Court has taken a change for the worse, and I believe I can go in and make a lot of changes,” said Hayden, repeating a campaign theme.
“If you want everything to continue as is, you vote for my opponent.”
Neupert is a District Court 1 judge pro tem and was acting presiding judge earlier this year when Porter, an Air Force reserve lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, went on 60-day reserve duty.
“I am the only candidate with any judicial experience in the District Court race,” Neupert told the more than two dozen breakfast attendees.
“I’m glad I had the keys to maintain the court during the judge’s military service.”
Hayden, a lawyer in Clallam County for 23 years, including experience in Superior and in District Courts 1 and 2, said prior judges, including Porter, started their District Court judicial careers without serving as pro tem District Court judges.
Porter said Tuesday he has presided over preliminary court-martial hearings in the JAG Corps.
Asked about escalating court costs, Hayden said “we can just about eliminate the $65,000 pro-tem budget,” which she called “ridiculous” and “outrageous,” by cooperating more with Port Angeles-West End-District Court 2 and “swapping out” judges.
In campaign literature she referred to at the breakfast, she said the pro-tem budget could be eliminated “by showing up and presiding in the courtroom.”
Neupert, an attorney for 25 years including at the former Platt Irwin Law Firm of Port Angeles, represents the Housing Authority in Superior Court in delinquent rent cases, of which there have been 13 in 2018, and in the redevelopment of the Housing Authority’s housing complex off Lauridsen Boulevard in Port Angeles.
Neupert said the court budget is hamstrung by a recent state Supreme Court decision that led to a law passed by the state Legislature in March, which eliminates legal financial obligations such as fines and court costs for indigent defendants.
“A lot of costs with District Court are required,” he said, adding that the court cannot be modeled after a business.
“I’m confident the funding issue is something that the [county] commissioners will resolve,” Neupert said.
Asked to be specific about her assertion that District Court has taken a turn for the worst, Hayden criticized the outgoing judge.
She criticized Porter for his pay-or-appear program, for allegedly being rude to defendants and for being admonished in 2013 by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The discipline grew from affidavits of prejudice issued under his pay-or-appear program, which Hayden called a “debtor’s prison.”
He had signed bench warrants for which he was disqualified due to a lack of screening for those affidavits in the pay-or-appear program, the judicial conduct commission said in its report, noting that there was no indication Porter knowingly signed ineligible warrants.
Porter took “full responsibility for everything that happens in my court,” he told Peninsula Daily News on May 12, 2013, in response to the admonishment.
Neupert, not commenting on pay-or-appear, said he has 25 years of civil and criminal legal experience.
“I don’t hear or decide cases like anyone else does,” he said.
Neupert suggested there was an appearance of a conflict of interest by Hayden’s husband being the landlord for Clallam Public Defender, whose lawyers would appear before her if she is elected.
Neupert urged listeners to “pay attention to that voice” that questions if something looks “right or not.”
Hayden said John Strait, an emeritus professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, had assured her there is no conflict.
The connection between a judge whose husband owns a building that is rented by a lawyer who appears before her “is simply too remote” to create an ethical issue, Strait, a former bar association representative on the state Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, said Tuesday in an interview.
The seven-member panel advises judicial officers on the state Code of Judicial Conduct.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].