Local attorneys vie for superior court

Voters will decide between two South Whidbey residents for judge.

Both judges in Island County Superior Court will be replaced in this year’s election, which will be the first time this has happened since a second judge was added in 1977.

One of the positions is uncontested. For the other, voters will decide between a retired local attorney with decades of experience in superior court and a retired King County attorney with a career that centered around federal court.

Judge Alan Hancock and Vickie Churchill are retiring at the end of the year. Oak Harbor attorney Chris Skinner is the sole candidate to replace Hancock.

Two well-educated, well-spoken women from South Whidbey with very different careers and experience are vying to replace Churchill.

Carolyn Cliff has been a civil litigation attorney for 30 years in the county and has served 20 years as a judge pro tem — a temporary judge — in Island County superior and district courts. She also was a superior court commissioner and a Langley municipal judge. She is endorsed by both superior court judges, the district court judge and a long list of Whidbey Island attorneys — including Skinner.

“I am committed to equal justice to all under the law,” she said.

Kathleen Petrich was a successful intellectual rights attorney at a big Seattle firm before retiring to Whidbey a few years ago. She’s also done pro tem work for superior court, but only for the last couple of years. She sees her status as an “outsider” as an advantage.

Petrich said she can be completely objective and fair because she isn’t part of the “insular” legal world on Whidbey and doesn’t have the friendships, animosities or alliances that would affect her impartiality in court.

“I have no trouble saying no,” she said.

Campaigning for a position on the judiciary is a unique endeavor. The positions are nonpartisan and come with strict rules governing campaigns and fundraising. Both candidates said they’ve had to explain to residents that they can’t answer questions about things like political affiliations or their thoughts on legal issues.

A lot of people don’t realize the diversity of law practiced in superior court, they agreed. Judges preside over adult felony cases, juvenile criminal law, estate and probate matters, protection orders, family law cases — including divorces and child custody — and all sorts of civil cases, from arguments over obscure zoning rules to lawsuits over damages from car crashes.

Largely, the candidates for judicial positions have to make stands based on their experience, personality and support from others.

Petrich was an attorney in King County for 25 years and was a partner at major law firms. She was an expert in intellectual property rights and worked with attorneys “from all over the nation and the world.” Nearly all of her cases were in federal court, which she admits is a lot different than superior court.

“It’s much more structured,” she said. “The pleadings are much more complex.”

After retiring to Whidbey, she became a pro tem judge in district court in 2018 and in superior court in 2019. She said she’s handled a wide range of cases. She said she takes her position very seriously and comes to court highly prepared.

“I have spent an enormous amount of time re-learning these areas of the law,” she said. “I’m a quick study.”

Petrich said she was regularly recognized by her peers in King County for her legal skills and integrity. She was a King County Bar Association trustee and was named as a “Washington Super Attorney” and was among the “Best Lawyers.”

Petrich said she strives to be “fair and even handed.”

Cliff, in contrast, has spent her career largely in superior court in Island County, although she also followed cases to the state court of appeals. As an attorney, she represented clients in civil cases, including a few higher-profile cases. In 2014, she successfully represented property owners in a lawsuit against Diking District 1 over assessments. She helped uncover evidence that former attorney Douglas Saar had stolen from his clients.

With 20 years experience as a judge pro tem, she also has much more experience on the bench than Petrich. She also has worked as a court commissioner and a judge in Langley. She’s dealt with “virtually everything that comes before the court,” she said.

Cliff said she understands the broad reach of law practiced in superior court and has the temperament for the sensitive matters that come before her, whether it involves sexual violence or vulnerable children.

She said she was overwhelmingly endorsed by the judges and the rest of the legal community because they know she’s qualified.

Cliff points to her judicial ratings by a half dozen minority bar associations in the state. The Loren Miller Bar Association, which is dedicated to addressing issues facing African Americans, and the Qlaw Judicial Evaluation Committee, which exists to ensure candidates consider issues important to the LGBTQ+ community, rated her as “exceptionally well qualified.”

Cliff is a big support of “therapeutic court” and would like to look into restarting the juvenile drug court. She said her experience presiding over adult drug court has shown her its effectiveness.

“When it does work, it is nothing short of miraculous,” she said. “People turn their lives around.”