Judge Whitney Rivera, who begins her appointment to Snohomish County Superior Court in May, stands in the Edmonds Municipal Court on Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Judge Whitney Rivera, who begins her appointment to Snohomish County Superior Court in May, stands in the Edmonds Municipal Court on Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Judge thought her clerk ‘needed more challenge’; now, she’s her successor

Whitney Rivera will be the first judge of Pacific Islander descent to serve on the Snohomish County Superior Court bench.

EVERETT — Whitney Rivera was in high school when she found herself sitting in a courtroom for the first time in District Court in Lynnwood.

The Edmonds-Woodway student was participating in a mock trial program as part of a class. No one in her family worked in the legal profession, nor did anyone she knew.

Last week, the longtime public defender reminisced on this origin story as she sat in her judge’s chambers at Edmonds Municipal Court. She was about 16 years old.

“I feel like I drove there, so it was definitely my junior year,” Rivera said, looking up at a black-and-white photo from the mock trial.

A mock trial photo of a young Whitney Rivera, who begins her appointment to Snohomish County Superior Court in May, hangs on her office wall on Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A mock trial photo of a young Whitney Rivera, who begins her appointment to Snohomish County Superior Court in May, hangs on her office wall on Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

All it took was that single elective course — and Rivera knew the courtroom is where she belonged. She would later cross path with the judges and attorneys working that day in a real courtroom, with some even sitting in front of her at Edmonds Municipal Court, where she has served as judge for the past four years.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Rivera to fill a vacancy on the Snohomish County Superior Court. She will fill the seat left empty by the retirement of Judge Anita Farris. Rivera was a law clerk for Farris in 2006.

She will join her longtime significant other, Presiding Judge Paul Thompson, on the Superior Court bench. The two previously worked together as public defenders.

“I think it’ll be business as usual for the most part,” Rivera said with a chuckle.

As a descent of the Indigenous Chamorro people of Guam, Rivera is the first Asian American Pacific Islander to serve on the county’s Superior Court bench.

“If you would have asked me back when I was a law clerk, ‘Would you ever be a judge?’ I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, that seems like the craziest thing in the world,’” Rivera said.

After high school, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington in 2003 and earned her law degree from Boston College. She planned to live on the East Coast before family matters drew her back to her hometown.

Farris remembered her former law clerk as one who learned quickly and asked many questions. Farris saw a bright future for Rivera.

“I just felt she needed more challenge,” Farris said in an interview Monday. “At the time, I knew she was going to be a great trial lawyer.”

After six months, Farris referred Rivera to an opening at the Snohomish County Public Defender Association. She had only referred a candidate twice in her career.

“This is the real deal here,” Farris recalled telling the hiring committee.

Rivera worked as a public defender for 14 years. During that time, she briefly served as an attorney at the Washington Appellate Program in Seattle, representing clients in their appeals.

She often took on hard cases, with clients who had few people, if anybody, to advocate for them.

In 2016, Rivera represented a Lynnwood veteran charged with shooting an unarmed teenager in the back, arguing her client was “responding the way the Army trained him to,” The Daily Herald reported at the time. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.

The next year, Rivera represented an Everett teenager who abandoned her newborn baby in a trash bin, arguing her client was in a dissociative state caused by mental health issues. The young mother served six months in jail.

As a defense attorney, Rivera has come to look at the criminal justice system as a “revolving door,” making it hard for people to exit once they enter it.

“It’s just a lot of time spent getting to know people, their stories and their journeys that led them to become involved in the criminal legal system,” Rivera said. “I try to understand people’s backgrounds and lived experiences, either from the bench or when I was an attorney. Or just in life.”

In November 2020, then-Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson appointed Rivera as an Edmonds Municipal Court judge, overseeing traffic infractions, misdemeanors and appeals.

As a judge, she empathizes those who sit in front of her.

“It’s important to recognize, every time that I take the bench, that I am representing a branch of government,” Rivera said. “Someone’s going to leave the courtroom with an impression about that branch of government based on the way I conduct myself.”

Rivera believes in a “therapeutic model” of courts that provide resources and services to those frequently going through the system. She referenced Edmonds’ Moral Reconation Therapy program, a weekly class for people on probation that addresses “criminal thinking,” substance abuse and mental health.

After going through the program, almost 90% of graduates have not been convicted of another crime, Rivera said.

“We’re really proud of that,” Rivera said.

In her first year on the bench, Rivera learned to think like a judge, not an attorney. She oversaw challenging legal issues, from emotional sentencing hearings to complex bench trials.

“As long as I’m putting in the work and showing the attorneys that I’m putting in the work, trying to come to the best outcome I think is correct based on the law, that people feel satisfied — even if they feel the need to appeal further or any of those things,” Rivera said.

She begins her position as a Superior Court Judge on May 1. She will be up for re-election in November. Already, she has been endorsed from nearly every judge serving in Superior Court, as well as leaders in the county’s legal community.

“I absolutely believe Whitney Rivera will do a fine job on the Superior Court bench,” county Prosecutor Jason Cummings said Monday. “She has the right disposition and temperament that we look for in judges.”

Maya Tizon: 425-339-3434; maya.tizon@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @mayatizon.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Snohomish residents Barbara Bailey, right, and Beth Jarvis sit on a gate atop a levee on Bailey’s property on Monday, May 13, 2024, at Bailey Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Bailey is concerned the expansion of nearby Harvey Field Airport will lead to levee failures during future flood events due to a reduction of space for floodwater to safely go. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Harvey Field seeks to reroute runway in floodplain, faces new pushback

Snohomish farmers and neighbors worry the project will be disruptive and worsen flooding. Ownership advised people to “read the science.”

Grayson Huff, left, a 4th grader at Pinewood Elementary, peeks around his sign during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
State OKs Marysville plan with schools, jobs on chopping block

The revised plan would mean the loss of dozens of jobs and two schools — still to be identified — in a school district staring down a budget crunch.

IAM District 751 machinists join the picket line to support Boeing firefighters during their lockout from the company on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amid lockout, Boeing, union firefighters return to bargaining table

The firefighters and the planemaker held limited negotiations this week: They plan to meet again Monday, but a lockout continues.

The Trestle’s junction with I-5 is under evaluation (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Here’s your chance to give feedback on the US 2 trestle and its future

Often feel overwhelmed, vulnerable and on shaky ground? So is the trestle. A new $17 million study seeks solutions for the route east of Everett.

John Pederson lifts a flag in the air while himself and other maintenance crew set up flags for Memorial Day at Floral Hills Cemetery on Friday, May 24, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Volunteers place thousands of flags by veterans’ graves in Lynnwood

Ahead of Memorial Day, local veterans ensure fellow military service members are never forgotten.

Brian Hennessy leads a demonstration of equipment used in fire training at the Maritime Institute in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
‘Ready to go full sail’: Maritime Institute embarks at Port of Everett

The training facility offers Coast Guard-certified courses for recreational boaters and commerical vessel operators.

George Beard poses for a photo outside of the the Stanwood Library in Stanwood, Washington on Wednesday, May 8, 2024.  (Annie Barker / The Herald)
From sick to the streets: How an illness left a Stanwood man homeless

Medical bills wiped out George Beard’s savings. Left to heal in his car, he got sicker. Now, he’s desperate for housing. It could take years.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Lawsuit says Snohomish County deputies not justified in Sultan shooting

Two deputies repeatedly shot an unarmed Sultan man last year, body camera video shows. An internal investigation is pending.

An airplane is parked at Gate M9 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)
Good luck to Memorial Day travelers: If you’re like me, you’ll need it

I spent a night in the Chicago airport. I wouldn’t recommend it — but with flight delays near an all-time high, you might want to pack a pillow.

Editorial cartoons for Friday, May 24

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Cascade’s Mia Walker, right, cries and hugs teammate Allison Gehrig after beating Gig Harbor on Thursday, May 23, 2024 in Lacey, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Seniors Wilson, Tripp power Cascade softball past Gig Harbor

The pair combined for three homers as the Bruins won the Class 3A state softball opening-round game.

The original Mountlake Terrace City Council, Patricia Neibel bottom right, with city attorney, sign incorporation ordinance in 1954. (Photo provided by the City of Mountlake Terrace)
Patricia Neibel, last inaugural MLT council member, dies at 97

The first woman on the council lived by the motto, “Why not me?” — on the council, at a sheriff’s office in Florida, or at a leper colony in Thailand.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.