On the Superior Court bench, Judge David Kurtz is known to be even-tempered and deliberate. He takes his time. But when he laces up his running shoes, speed matters.
Kurtz, 68, has run 93 marathons, three in Boston, with a best time of 3 hours, 11 minutes, 36 seconds. He’d like to run 100 of them. “I’m not sure I’ll make it,” he said.
There’s now time to push for that epic goal. Kurtz is stepping away from his judicial role.
In a March letter, Kurtz let Gov. Jay Inslee know he planned to retire at the end of this month. In January 2006, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire appointed Kurtz to be a Snohomish County Superior Court Judge. He’d been a deputy prosecutor in the county since 1983.
“This job changes us. I don’t think Judge Kurtz ever changed,” said Judge Bruce Weiss, the Superior Court’s presiding judge, at a retirement celebration Monday honoring Kurtz and court reporter Bill Meek. “He is patient and thoughtful in all his decisions,” said Weiss, who described Kurtz as “a workhorse for our court.”
“We’re going to lose a lot of institutional knowledge,” Weiss said.
On Tuesday in his chambers, Kurtz reflected on the highs and lows of a long career.
“In this job, you’re involved in the worst that people endure,” Kurtz said. “The contrast made Adoption Day so great.”
For years, Kurtz headed the Superior Court’s Adoption Day committee. He has delighted in helping form forever families. The judges wear colorful leis over black robes to mark National Adoption Day each year. Kids get to pound gavels. Proceedings are open for media coverage, and the court holds festive events that call attention to the need for adoptive parents.
And then there are the other days.
Kurtz, on May 13, sentenced Elmer Thomas Nash to 10 years in prison. Nash had admitted that when he was 12 he set the fire at Everett Community College that killed Gary Parks. The Everett firefighter died in battling the blaze that destroyed the college library on Feb. 16, 1987. Now 47, Nash pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
“It was tragic all the way around,” Kurtz said Tuesday.
Another high-profile case concluded late last year with Kurtz upholding the guilty verdict for Terrence Miller. The Edmonds man, 78, took his own life before sentencing. Miller had been convicted in the 1972 killing of Jody Loomis, 20, in what’s now Mill Creek. The case involved DNA evidence and forensic genealogy.
“It was shocking. It was tragic. No one wanted it to end that way,” said Kurtz, who nevertheless praised both the prosecution and the defense of Miller. “That case was wonderfully tried on both sides,” he said.
From his boyhood home in Wisconsin to the Superior Court bench, Kurtz traced his journey during the interview in his chambers — where dozens of marathon bibs were pinned on a bulletin board.
Kurtz has run on six out of seven continents, at events including the Galapagos Marathon and the Great Wall Marathon in China.
Throughout his career, he has made his several-mile commute into running time. He walked to work daily, in running garb, after bringing a week’s worth of clean clothes and lunches — mostly raw veggies and fruit — to the courthouse on Sundays. Work days ended with a run home, often with miles added to take a scenic route.
He said he would often craft decisions, or closing arguments as a prosecutor, during long Saturday morning runs.
Raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Kurtz earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. There he met his future wife. Peggy Kurtz recalled singing with him in a university show choir. They were paired for a medley of love songs, she said, among them “All You Need is Love.”
By 1975, Kurtz was a first-year law student at the University of Washington. That Christmastime, he took a train back to Wisconsin for their wedding. He and Peggy were married Dec. 28, 1975. In 2015, they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in New York, and saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton” on Broadway.
Music and theater have been central to their lives. Before becoming a judge, Kurtz was active in community theater. Peggy Kurtz, a former high school Spanish teacher, taught music at Trinity Lutheran College, is a voice teacher, and the music director at Everett’s Central Lutheran Church.
They have two grown children, Julie and A.J. Kurtz, and three grandchildren.
Before moving to Snohomish County, Kurtz practiced law in Wenatchee. He was a public defender for the city of Wenatchee, and before that a Chelan County deputy prosecutor. He joined the prosecutor’s office here on April 1, 1983.
Stephen Ritchie, who worked as Kurtz’s law clerk in 2015 and 2016, said he and the judge “go way, way back.”
“He was one of the coaches of my soccer team growing up,” said Ritchie, who worked as an attorney in New York before moving back here to be close to family. His time as a law clerk coincided with Kurtz’s Snohomish County Juvenile Court rotation at Denney Juvenile Justice Center.
“My time clerking for Judge Kurtz gave me a unique insight into the man behind the robe,” Ritchie said. He noted the judge’s long hours, even on slow days, and described Kurtz as “probably the hardest working individual I have ever encountered.” He said Kurtz encouraged him to read all the newest case law updates, a habit Ritchie said has helped him in his own career.
Beyond serving as Kurtz’s law clerk, Ritchie has appeared as an attorney in front of the judge. In both roles, Ritchie said he saw Kurtz’s fairness and “this innate ability to stay calm and focused on the task at hand.”
Erin McCartney spent 14 years as a court clerk for Kurtz. She remembers passing a note to the judge saying she’d run out of exhibit labels in the midst of a dissolution case with many photos, and the two litigants representing themselves. She recalled Kurtz saying: “Sometimes less is more and more is less.”
McCartney said she’ll miss Kurtz’s humor, expertise, kindness and respectfulness.
Kurtz praised jurors as he spoke Tuesday of how the justice system carried on through the pandemic.
“Obviously, COVID has been a tragedy for thousands of people, and challenging for the rest of us,” he said. “Bless those jurors, they came in day after day. They knew the calculated risk but were willing to serve their community for $10 a day plus mileage.”
After 38 years with Snohomish County, Kurtz plans a true departure from his legal and judicial career. He’ll keep running, mile after mile, but something new is on the horizon.
“I’ve had enough of the legal business,” he said. “I have always loved live theater. I’d like to take a stab at play writing.”
So rather than crafting court decisions while out running, he’ll be thinking of play ideas.
At his retirement party, he reminisced about being admitted to the bar in 1979. “The Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series that year,” he said, recalling the team’s theme song — “We Are Family.” Through Adoption Day, he’s seen families take many different forms.
“I’m most grateful for my immediate family,” Kurtz said. “The entire legal community is almost like family.”
Julie Muhlstein: firstname.lastname@example.org