Two vie for Island County judge position
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
August 2, 2008 · Updated 9:37 AM
One will win in August
A visitor to Craig Platt’s site on Myspace.com describes his campaign to become an Island County Superior Court judge as “a modern day David and Goliath.”
It apparently alludes to the thought that Platt represents the common man and his opponent, Judge Vickie Churchill, is part of the elite.
But it’s also an amusing image, given that the Coupeville attorney, a somewhat imposing figure in a courtroom, is apparently “David” in the metaphor. And the Churchill would be a petite Goliath in a little black robe.
But there’s nothing lopsided about their qualifications. They both have impressive experience, sharp legal minds and fascinating — but very different — life stories.
Because of what Platt describes as an unintended consequence of “a horribly written law,” the race between the two judicial candidates will almost certainly be settled in the Aug. 19 primary. Whoever wins more than half the votes will be judge.
Churchill, an Oak Harbor resident, worked as an attorney for a decade before she was elected judge 12 years ago. This is the first time she’s had a challenger when seeking reelection.
As a judge, Churchill is known for being tough on crime, though she prefers to phrase it as “holding defendants accountable.”
Yet Churchill stresses that hearing felony cases is only a small portion of her job. She presides over civil cases, juvenile matters, family law matters and the adult drug court.
In fact, the judge said one of her proudest accomplishment is helping to create a juvenile and adult drug court, as well as a family version for dependency cases, which should start soon. A drug court is a special court designed to handle offenders who have substance abuse problems. The judge has to be very hands-on in the intensive and comprehensive programs.
“I really enjoy drug court because you can see it’s something that makes a difference in someone’s life. It’s just a wonderful program,” Churchill said, adding that turning criminals into drug-free, tax-paying members of society is a positive thing for everyone.
In addition, Churchill has been instrumental in getting the county’s juvenile detention center built; she helped create a court facilitator program from indigent civil litigants; she started the Community Accountability Board to get the community involved in the lives of juveniles; and she was involved in setting up mandatory parenting classes for cases involving children.
Churchill is quick to give her fellow judge, Alan Hancock, equal credit for making the improvements. Along with a couple state Supreme Court judges, Hancock is at the top of a list that includes an astonishing number of public figures and citizens who endorsed Churchill.
“I know her to be a person with unswerving integrity, broad legal experience and knowledge of the law, high intelligence, an analytical legal mind, a rich life experience, and a steady judicial temperament,” Hancock wrote.
As a public defender, Platt has stood in court before Judge Churchill countless times. He even worked with her — on “her one felony trial” — when she was an attorney. He admits that it’s a little awkward to run against one of the two judges in Coupeville, but it’s something he feels very passionate about.
“I’m in this to promote democracy and the healthy exchange of ideas,” he said, adding that “there are people in the community who feel it’s time for a change.”
Platt said he takes his campaign motto, “Justice For All,” very seriously. “I truly believe this stuff,” he said.
He and his wife, Mimi Buescher, started the first public dedicated defense office in the county in 1990.
“Island County public defense is one of the most underfunded in the state...” he said. “I had to be creative to make it work.” That included, he said, one of the best summer internship programs in the nation.
He contracted with the county to provide public defense until last year, when he lost the bid. Now he and his wife run their own office.
Over the years, Platt handled most of the high-profile cases in the county and went to trial so many times he lost count. He obviously relished the role of defender of the little guy, but now he’s ready to wear the robes.
“Being in the trenches is a distinct advantage for me,” he said. “I’ve learned how to explain complex legal matters to individuals who may not be that sophisticated.”
He has ideas for reducing court congestion, improving security, updating courtroom technology and generally running things more efficiently. He proposes ID cards for attorneys — to get them through security quickly — and a simple reshuffle of the court calendar. He also wants to improve the atmosphere.
“It’s not as welcoming and comfortable as it could be,” he said.
“One of the things I would do is walk through the front door,” he added, noting that the current judges separate themselves from the masses, even by going through doors that aren’t open to the public.
Beef Capital vs. Pumpkin Capital
Platt emphasizes that his legal experience goes far beyond defense work in Island County. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he worked in civil law for large law firms in Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle. Then he completely switched directions and became chief prosecutor for the Attorney General’s Office in Saipan. He prosecuted major violent crimes and corruption cases, including some involving the Japanese mafia, known as the Yakuza.
Surviving that, Platt and his wife moved to Whidbey.
Indeed, the paths that lead to the island were very different for the two candidates.
Churchill grew up in the Texas town of Hereford, known as the Beef Capital of the World. She put her dream of becoming a lawyer on hold after marrying her husband, Bruce Miller. She accompanied him as he pursued a military career and the family ended up on Whidbey.
Then tragedy struck when their 2-year-old daughter died from E. coli poisoning. Her husband was killed in active duty 16 months later, leaving her with two children to raise.
Four years later, she married George Churchill and he encouraged her to earn a law degree. At age 37, she moved to Tacoma with two children. She graduated cum laude from Seattle University School of Law.
Platt, by contrast, took a more traditional road to become an attorney. He went straight from college to Stanford Law School, graduating in 1981.
Platt was raised in Morton, known as the pumpkin capital of Illinois. As a boy, he was captivated by stories of his ancestors who came to America in 1638 to seek religious freedom and whose descendents were later instrumental in the American Revolution, his Web site explains.
With deep roots in the U.S., Platt has also explored the world. As a child and young man, he lived in England and visited Tokyo with his family. Later, he worked in England and later in Saipan.
“My broad life experience has taught me that all people are essentially the same deep down,” he wrote. “I know that we may take different paths, but we are all on the same journey. The compassion, understanding and patience I have learned over all these years dealing with people from many different cultures and walks of life will be invaluable in helping me deal with the wide array of litigants I will serve when I am judge.”
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.