Candidate’s ‘not qualified’ rating baffles judges

  • Wed Jun 27th, 2012 5:19pm
  • News

By Gene Johnson Associated Press

SEATTLE — Hong Tran has devoted her 17-year legal career to helping poor people — representing those accused of crimes, helping them appeal when they are denied unemployment benefits or housing, and assisting immigrants in obtaining public services in their own languages. She says she’s never faced a bar association complaint, and she gets high marks from many lawyers who have worked with her.

So she was stunned that after she decided to run for a superior court judge seat, the King County Bar Association’s screening committee this month gave her its lowest rating: “not qualified.”

She wasn’t alone in her surprise. King County Superior Court Judge Dean Lum, who has endorsed Tran’s opponent, said he considered Tran’s rating unjustified based on the excellent work he has observed, and the former chairman of the screening committee echoed that. Two state appeals court judges — Michael Spearman and Ann Schindler — have written letters urging the committee to give her a new rating, to no avail thus far.

“Whether it was representing an individual client or the interests of those who had to appear in court and who spoke little or no English, Ms. Tran had researched the issues and was well-prepared to advocate strongly on their behalf,” Spearman wrote. “She is exceptionally well-qualified to serve on the King County Superior Court bench.”

Several county and minority bar associations in Washington evaluate judicial candidates as a way of helping voters figure out who is most qualified to decide complex issues of law, and the ratings can carry heavy weight as candidates boast of being considered the best-qualified person in a campaign. The possible ratings are not qualified, qualified, well-qualified and exceptionally well-qualified.

The King County Bar Association screening committee draws a panel of at least 12 people from its pool of 73 members. The panel then interviews candidates, reviews their records and backgrounds, and questions their references, including opposing attorneys. Its deliberations are confidential, and co-chairwoman Judy Massong declined to discuss why the committee considered Tran unqualified.

Massong said the committee would consider the letters from Spearman and Schindler, but won’t reconsider the rating unless there is “significant new and previously undisclosed information.” The committee already has denied Tran’s request for a new evaluation.

“Your rating was not based on any single reference’s statements, but was based on a full committee discussion of all references, your questionnaire and your statements to the committee during your interview,” Massong wrote to her.

Tran, 46, works at The Defender Association, a public defense agency in King County. She is an immigrant from Vietnam who also challenged incumbent U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell in the Democratic primary in 2006, collecting 5 percent of the vote to Cantwell’s 91 percent. She has been vastly outraised and outspent in the judicial campaign, with her opponent, senior deputy prosecutor Sean O’Donnell, taking in nearly $50,000 to her $2,750.

Tran said that during her interview with the committee, she was asked only three questions, and none hinted at any concerns regarding her qualifications.

“I’m not sure how they came to this conclusion,” she said. “I’ve never had a grievance. I’m not sure what information they could have gotten that would justify a not-qualified rating.”

Seattle attorney David Koch, a former co-chairman of the committee who served on it for 10 years, said “not-qualified” ratings typically are reserved for people who are newly out of law school, those with little or no experience in the courts they’re running for, and those who have a history of ethics violations or sub-par work.

The committee’s members work hard to make fair judgments of candidates, and they get it right far more often than they get it wrong, Koch said.

“I know Hong, I’ve worked with her in the past, and I was extremely impressed in the work that I saw,” Koch said. “I have no idea what information the committee received on Hong that would lead them to rate her not qualified, and there’s no way for me to find out.

“I’m at a loss here,” he said. “I have great respect for Hong, and I have great respect for the committee.”