ARLINGTON — As a judge in north Snohomish County seeks another four years on the bench, the local legal establishment is lining up behind her challenger — and urging voters to do the same.
Kristen Olbrechts ran unopposed four years ago for judge in Arlington-based Cascade District Court. This campaign promises to be harder. It is proving to be pricey and largely self-financed.
Challenger Jennifer Rancourt, a Snohomish County public defender and chairwoman of the state Clemency & Pardons Board, has shored up overwhelming support from the county’s sitting and retired judges, along with other key local legal figures. The county’s other seven district court races are all uncontested.
Olbrechts, unruffled, touts her record.
“My unmatched experience, my roots in the community and my broad support will make the difference in November,” she predicted. “Obviously, I have fourth-generation roots in the district and have support from all over the state.”
Rancourt said she decided to run after a Snohomish County Bar Association survey last year ranked Olbrechts the lowest of 29 local judges in the county. Attorneys with experience in Olbrechts’ courtroom graded her on decision-making, efficiency, demeanor and impartiality. There were 39 responses, according to the bar.
“This wasn’t just a whim,” Rancourt said. “I would not have run this race against a sitting incumbent judge unless I felt absolutely compelled that our community deserved better than what we’re getting now. I don’t think we’re being well served.”
A different bar poll of 170 local attorneys earlier this year also went overwhelmingly in Rancourt’s favor: 87 percent picked her over the incumbent.
Olbrechts said voters should view those results with skepticism.
“My judicial record and experience speak for themselves, better than any bar poll could,” she said. “I’m a public servant and I represent our community.”
District court judges are part of the state judicial system. There are eight in Snohomish County, assigned to four different courts. They oversee infractions, traffic violations and misdemeanor criminal offenses. Common cases include driving under the influence, domestic violence and theft. Protection orders and name changes are regular parts of the workflow.
District courts also handle civil lawsuits up to $100,000 and small claims cases up to $5,000.
The court’s Cascade Division serves Arlington, Granite Falls, Stanwood, Darrington, Oso, Silvana and parts of north Marysville and north Lake Stevens. About 57,000 people are eligible to vote in the district, county elections manager Garth Fell said.
Olbrechts, 55, underscores her experience on both sides of the bench: She previously worked as a state and city prosecutor; as a public defender; in private practice; as a hearing examiner; and as a judge pro tem. She lives in Granite Falls with multigenerational ties to the area. Her great-grandparents settled in Stanwood in the late 19th century.
“I reflect our values and I work hard to make sure they’re represented in court,” Olbrechts said.
Since Snohomish County discontinued its work-release program in 2017, Olbrechts said she has tried when appropriate to steer offenders toward work-release programs in other jurisdictions. She also said she encourages defendants to regain driver’s licenses, seek treatment and take other steps to become productive members of society — all while striving to keep the public safe and hold defendants accountable.
“I’d like to see them succeed,” she said.
Rancourt, 44, has practiced her entire career in Snohomish County, where supporters say she’s developed a reputation for hard work and compassion. More than a few people have pointed out that her last name, Rancourt, would make an aptonym, or appropriate description, for a judge.
“I have much deeper ties to this community because I’ve always practiced in this community,” she said.
Rancourt’s trial experience stretches back to 2001, when she started as a public defender.
Rancourt since 2009 has put in time as a judge pro tem in Everett and Marysville. She said her experience on the state Clemency & Pardons Board also speaks to her ability as a neutral decision-maker. She has served since 2011 and is the current chairwoman. The board meets quarterly to make recommendations about commuting sentences and pardoning offenders.
Four other district court judges have taken the unusual step of writing a strong endorsement letter for Rancourt over their current colleague. Presiding Judge Anthony Howard was joined by judges Tam Bui, Beth Fraser and Jeffrey Goodwin.
“As judges, we make decisions based on evidence,” they wrote. “The evidence relevant to this election establishes the stark reality that a new judge is needed in Arlington and Jennifer Rancourt is the person for the job.”
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe also is making his support for Rancourt known.
“She is smart, fair, and tough; the three things any judge should be,” Roe wrote. “She is also widely respected by virtually everyone who has worked with her, including people like me who have generally been on the opposite side.”
While she has few endorsements from local judges, Olbrechts countered that “the judges who have endorsed me are among the best legal scholars in our state, including eight Supreme Court justices.”
Judge candidates must abide by stricter campaign rules than other aspiring politicians. They’re unable to personally solicit or accept campaign contributions. Instead, they must entrust fundraising to campaign committees. The rules are intended to prevent judge candidates from leveraging the power of their office and to safeguard future courtroom decisions.
Almost all of Olbrechts’ money has come from her own pocket. She’s put in $110,000, with another $8,700 in individual donations, according to state filings. Rancourt’s campaign has more than $51,000 in cash donations. Of that, $20,000 was her own money.
A Democratic Party activist has filed a campaign-finance complaint against Olbrechts. It’s over an unusual arrangement by which her campaign has paid Republican state House candidate Robert Sutherland $5,000 to lease posts for political signs. Olbrechts said her campaign checked with the Public Disclosure Commission before entering into the arrangement with Sutherland. The case is pending.
Ballots were mailed Thursday. Election Day is Nov. 6.
What’s at stake
A four-year term as judge in Snohomish County District Court’s Cascade Division in Arlington. The job pays $164,313 per year and is set to rise to $185,263 in 2019. The post is nonpartisan.
Meet the candidates
Residence: Granite Falls
Experience: Cascade District Court judge (incumbent); private-practice attorney; former city and state prosecutor; former defense attorney; former judge pro tem.
Experience: Snohomish County public defender; pro tem municipal judge in Everett and Marysville; state Clemency & Pardons Board, appointed in 2011 and current chairperson.