Clallam County judge hopefuls at odds over veterans court

Brian Coughenour and Dave Neupert come down on different sides of idea that would direct veterans toward treatment.

Clallam County Superior Court judge candidates Dave Neupert, right, and incumbent appointed Judge Brian Coughenour appear Tuesday at an election forum. (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

Clallam County Superior Court judge candidates Dave Neupert, right, and incumbent appointed Judge Brian Coughenour appear Tuesday at an election forum. (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County Superior Court judge candidates Brian Coughenour and Dave Neupert disagree over establishing a veterans court that would route former military personnel away from incarceration and into treatment.

Neupert favors the move, which would establish a venue for former military personnel much like the existing drug court, while Coughenour, the appointed incumbent, is opposed to the idea, they said Tuesday at a campaign forum.

Neupert, 61, a district court pro tem who retired in December from Platt Irwin Law Firm in Port Angeles, also said Superior Court cases should be adjudicated faster, while Coughenour, 65, defended the time it takes for cases to close.

The forum, at a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Port Angeles Business Association, was attended by three dozen participants.

The four-year judgeship, occupied by Coughenour since Gov. Jay Inslee appointed him to the position in mid-2015, offers the sole countywide election on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Neupert also had applied for the vacancy filled by Inslee, which had been occupied by George L. Wood before he retired at age 66 before the end of his term.

The judgeship will pay $165,870 in salary beginning Sept. 1, up from the $162,618 it paid beginning Sept. 1, 2015.

Neupert said he was confident he could find funds to pay for a veterans court in Superior Court’s $1.36 million budget, suggesting one option might be the special fund initiated by Sen. Jim Hargrove.

The funds are generated by a one-tenth-of-1 percent sales tax and pay for chemical dependency treatment and mental health services.

“Hargrove funds are best used paying for services for juveniles,” Coughenour said at the forum.

Veterans “have their drug court and mental health court that will cover the small number of veterans we would serve” in a veterans court, Coughenour in a later interview.

In addition, they do not need “another boutique court, of which we already have two really good ones,” Coughenour said.

“I think he’s using it just to appeal to veterans,” Coughenour said of Neupert.

“Realistically, there is not the number or need in our community.”

Neupert is a district court pro tem judge who during private practice was a criminal attorney for seven years and a civil attorney for 20 years.

”We don’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said in a later interview.

“I know there is a need and support for it by talking to folks involved with veterans services in the county.

“To shut the door on it and say we’ve never done it that way before and there’s no need to make the effort is very short-sighted and does a disservice to the folks who served us.”

Neupert also said 90 percent of Superior Court cases should be resolved in no more than four months, citing the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

“We are at 63 percent,” Neupert said.

“A lot of times, cases are continued without any apparent purpose.”

Coughenour said there are lots of reasons cases get continued, from defense attorneys asking for continuances to having to hold suppression hearings.

“When you have a drug court, and if you had a veterans court, it would elongate the length of time to resolve our cases,” he said.

The community is best served by rehabilitating people, not by solving cases “really quickly,” he added.

“It seems to me a conflict on the one hand that [Neupert] wants to add another boutique court that will elongate cases but then complains we don’t get our cases resolved fast enough.”

But Neupert said cases are already resolved by their entry into a therapeutic court.

In his closing statement, Neupert said he offers voters a clear choice.

“I’m not standing here looking back,” he said.

“I’m looking ahead at ways to improve access to the courts, ways to improve the court system, ways to improve access to the courts.”

Neupert said he would serve “all the people of the community, not the favored few.”

He said later that when he retired from Platt Irwin in December, he had not planned to run for the position.

“I know I am qualified, and I recognize my opponent was selected, not elected,” Neupert said.

Coughenour, who practiced law in Clallam County for 39 years and was a Lower Elwha Klallam tribal judge for 15 years, focused in his closing statement on the time he had been in the area.

He emphasized later that he served as a District Court judge pro tem in Forks and Port Angeles as well serving as a county Superior Court commissioner for 15 years before being appointed judge.

“The choice is between someone who has had 16 1/2 years of on-the-job training on the court as a judge or someone who has never practiced as a judge in Superior Court,” Coughenour said.

During the forum, Neupert sat at the head table that had been reserved for the two candidates, while Coughenour sat nearby at a separate table.

“There was no issue there,” Coughenour said later.

“The seat I had was closest to the podium.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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