EVERETT — Two immigrants from nations on the other side of the globe are squaring off in a race for Snohomish County Superior Court judge.
In his youth, Edirin Okoloko, 46, believed he would be a molecular biologist like his father in Nigeria.
“I thought I was going to grow up to be a scientist like my dad, because I grew up watching him in his lab as a child, and I wanted to have that same kind of passion that he had for his work,” he said. “But military intervention interrupted the democratic structure of the government, and coups and human rights abuses that flowed from that sent me on a different track, the study of law.”
He moved to the United States after winning a Diversity Visa lottery in 1998. He studied legal systems in both countries and became a U.S. citizen in 2004. He served as a deputy prosecutor for over a decade before being appointed to the Superior Court bench by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2018.
He’s defending his seat against Anna Alexander, 41, an attorney with about two decades of experience in Snohomish County courtrooms.
Her family faced persecution under Soviet rule in Moldova, she said — a country where Jews were restricted from becoming lawyers “because law school was a stepping stone to positions of power in government and also diplomacy and travel,” she said. Her family fled the country when she was a preteen.
“It was an opportunity that was kind of gifted to me by my mom and dad,” she said, “to be here and to become what I couldn’t become, no matter how hard I tried or how hard I worked or how talented I was.”
At 16, she graduated from Roosevelt High School in Seattle. Alexander has served as a public defender, worked in private practice in both civil and criminal law, and began her own firm about 10 years ago.
Until October 2018, she was known as Anna Goykhman. She said she changed her legal surname to approximate the Russian-style patronymic in tribute to her father for his birthday.
“My dad was a very brave person,” she said, “to take two people in their 70s and two little children and leave behind everything he knew and go into the completely unknown, and really be the one on whom everyone would rely to make it, to live.”
She said she made the change months before deciding to run, and it had nothing to do with having a last name that’s more familiar to ears of English-speaking voters. But it has raised eyebrows, in a campaign where her opponent often is asked to teach people how his name is pronounced.
“I am Edirin Okoloko,” he said. “It’s the name under which I built a reputation as an attorney. … That’s my name. Everything associated with that name professionally is available in terms of my record as an attorney and my record as a judge.”
Early in his career, Okoloko juggled about 80 to 100-plus cases at a time in the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office’s Nonviolent Unit. Later he prosecuted cases where the victims were among the most vulnerable people in society — children and the elderly — and he served as an on-call homicide prosecutor. He has dedicated his life to serving the public, he said.
Alexander said her breadth of experience in civil, criminal and family law makes her more qualified. Most Superior Court judges in the county have a background in criminal law. Yet most cases filed at the courthouse are civil, and criminal law is frankly less complicated, Alexander said.
“We need jurists who have a lens of having been in private practice, knowing what it costs to litigate civil cases,” Alexander said, “because every decision you make is going to have an effect on whether a lawsuit can proceed, whether someone can afford to continue to go to court. That can only come from having been there and done it, and I feel like I have.”
Judges have the power to set ground rules in civil discovery, and Alexander said by default there should be a cap on the number of interrogatories — or written requests for information — to make lawsuits more affordable for clients.
Okoloko said the county should move toward electronic filing, so people don’t have to travel long distances to the courthouse, many times, to file documents.
In a poll by the Snohomish County Bar Association, about 69 percent of members chose Okoloko as their preferred pick.
He has been endorsed by all of the sitting Superior Court judges, over 100 judges statewide, and Sheriff Ty Trenary. His campaign has raised $90,990.
Alexander has been endorsed by about a dozen judges around the state; state legislators John McCoy, Marko Liias and Cindy Ryu; and the mayors of Everett, Mukilteo, Lynnwood, Arlington, Stanwood and Darrington. She’s married to local attorney Rico Tessandore, who has run for judge twice and lost. Her campaign has raised $32,313.
Since 2008, Alexander has filled in as a judge pro tem, or temporary judge, in Superior, District and juvenile courts, as often as perhaps a dozen times a year, she said. It was never a major part of her workload, and she has done it less in recent years, she said.
Below are excerpts from Daily Herald interviews with both candidates.
Question: How does your background inform your approach in court?
Alexander: “We want judges to be these vessels of impartiality, but judges aren’t robots. Judges are human beings that come to the job and view what comes in front of them through their own lens of experience. … The reason our Constitution is something to revere and love, as opposed to the Soviet Union Constitution, is that in practice it really works, the checks and balances.”
Okoloko: “That experience of having rights denied under a military sort of system, the experience of moving to a different country and starting afresh, working hard during the day to support myself as I went to school at night, the understanding of what it takes for individuals who are trying to make a living for themselves, a practical understanding of the immigrant process, as an immigrant myself, having to come and adjust into this country — those things influence my perspective on the bench, which is to stay true to the commitment that I have taken, the oath to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States and the state of Washington, by making sure that people who come before are heard, by making sure that people come before me are treated fairly, are treated with dignity and with respect.”
Q: What frustrates you about the legal system?
Alexander: “The cost of civil litigation. People don’t feel like they can have their day in court. They feel like they can’t afford it. … They can’t get a lawyer on board because they don’t have enough money, because the lawyer knows how much time it’s going to take to litigate something. And there are specific solutions, practical solutions, that can solve certain issues.”
Okoloko: “We are pretty much restricted by the sentencing guidelines in terms of what we can and cannot do. And what’s most frustrating is the sheer number of cases that come through the legal system, that are driven by mental health, chemical dependency, addiction, and a lack of enough resources to deal with these matters.”
The position pays an annual salary of $190,985.
Election Day is Nov. 5.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.