More questions about King County judicial ratings

SEATTLE — In her campaign for an open seat on the King County Superior Court, Seattle lawyer Elizabeth Berns has been endorsed by several judges — including two retired state Supreme Court justices.

The King County Bar Association’s screening committee, however, deemed her unfit for the bench.

It’s the second time this year that a well-respected, female, minority judicial candidate in King County — Berns is gay — received a “not qualified” rating from the committee, and it’s raising questions about the process by which the weighty evaluations are made.

“I am dumbfounded to see how KCBA could have given Elizabeth Berns a ‘not qualified,”’ former state Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland wrote in an email to the Associated Press. “I am left with the impression that something is seriously broken in the KCBA judicial evaluation process.”

Ratings from local or minority bar associations, such as Washington Women Lawyers, are a crucial source of information for voters trying to pick among little-known judicial candidates in Washington state.

The possible ratings are typically not qualified, qualified, well qualified and exceptionally well qualified. They are designed to be given without regard to the credentials of a candidate’s opponent. The ratings are based on a review of the candidate’s background, statements from references and opposing counsel and an interview with the candidate.

Good ratings are flaunted in campaign literature. Bad ones, typically reserved for the inexperienced or the inept, can torpedo a campaign.

The process is confidential to encourage forthrightness. Candidates aren’t told why they receive the rating they get, nor are they allowed to challenge information that might be false or misconstrued unless directly asked about it in their interviews.

The King County Bar Association’s executive director, Andrew Prazuch, did not return calls or an email seeking comment.

Three of the 13 candidates for contested seats on the King County Superior Court received “not qualified” ratings from the screening committee— Berns, public defender Hong Tran, and Bellevue attorney Marianne Jones. Each has about two decades of legal experience, none of the three has ever been sanctioned by the Washington State Bar Association, and Ireland said she didn’t understand how any of the three were deemed unqualified.

Tran’s rating was suspended following an outcry from several judges and lawyers who came to her defense. She has not yet been given a new one.

Berns is running against deputy prosecutor Roger Davidheiser and state appeals court commissioner Eric Schmidt in the Aug. 7 primary. Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant, is running against deputy prosecutor Sean O’Donnell. Jones is one of three people challenging Judge Chris Washington.

Berns has spent the past three years as a pro-tem judge in King County District Court and a pro-tem commissioner in Superior Court. For 19 years, she says, her law practice included complex business transactions, real estate law and intellectual property management.

She received “well qualified” ratings from three of the minority bar associations that reviewed her, a “qualified” rating from another, and the highest rating — “outstanding” — from the Metropolitan League of King County. She’s been endorsed by former Justices Ireland and Bobbe Bridge, as well as by Judge James Doerty, the openly gay judge whom she’s running to replace.

Berns said she had a terrible experience with the King County Bar Association’s screening committee. First, she said, the committee mistakenly sent to her materials that had been submitted by state Supreme Court candidate Sheryl McCloud. Then, the committee inadvertently designated Berns — rather than one of the committee’s members — to call some of her own references. Those references wound up never being interviewed by the committee, Berns said.

Her interview before the committee itself was hostile, she said, and she was repeatedly cut off.

Finally, after Berns was informed of her “not qualified” rating, she emailed one of the co-chairs asking for an explanation. She was denied an explanation, and the response she received began, “Dear Ms. Allen.”

“I was like, ‘Do you guys even know who you interviewed?”’ Berns recalled. “There should be no interview with a judicial candidate that is hostile. We’re qualified people, we’re good people, we want to go on the bench and serve our community.”

Doerty said he was impressed with the breadth of Berns’ civil and pro-tem experience, and said she would help maintain diversity on the King County bench. He suggested that the ratings process should be more transparent, such as by having the committee reveal how many references it contacted.

“When you see someone who’s not a crackpot, who is credible, get a not-qualified rating, you have to scratch your head,” he said. “I would hope after the election the bar would recognize that there’s a disconnect.”

Ireland echoed that.

“I do intend to contact the presidents and judicial review chairs of all the bar rating organizations about courtesy, standards, consistency, transparency, confrontation rights and fairness after the elections,” she wrote.

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