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Four vie for superior court judge seat
by AMANDA WINTERS
Four candidates are in the running to replace the retiring Superior Court Judge Ken Williams.
Port Angeles attorney Curtis Johnson, Clallam County Hearing Examiner Christopher Melly, Assistant Attorney General William Payne and Clallam County District Court 2 Judge Erik Rohrer will all be on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot, with the top two proceeding to the Nov. 6 general election.
In the event one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary election, his will be the only name to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
An attorney in Port Angeles since 1978, Johnson, 58, said his father, Gerard Johnson, and Ken Williams mentored him for about five years after he graduated from law school.
“When you get out of law school, you know the law but you don’t necessarily know how to try a case,” he said.
Johnson served as second chair in a second-degree murder case, defending a Forks High School cheerleader accused of killing her father in the early 1980s. Johnson said the young woman was going to the aid of her mother, who was abused at the hands of her father. The jury found her not guilty and Johnson remembers it as a key case in his legal history.
After deciding to work more in civil law than criminal law, Johnson practiced insurance defense, acting as trial counsel for clients including Farmers Insurance, Safeco Insurance and Safeway stores.
In addition to his wide variety of civil law experience, Johnson served as a pro tem District Court judge for 15 years. In that capacity, he conducted misdemeanor criminal trials, heard small claims cases and ruled on criminal evidentiary hearings.
Since 1994, Johnson has averaged about two cases per year as a Superior Court arbitrator with authority to award up to $50,000 in damages in civil disputes.
In arbitration, arbitrators only have to rule in favor of one party or the other but they aren’t required to give their reasons why, he said.
Johnson takes the extra step to write opinions after ruling in arbitration so people will know why he made that ruling, he said, adding his rulings never have been reversed.
For more than 20 years, Melly, 60, worked in the Clallam County Prosecutor’s Office. From 1988-2005 he was the chief deputy prosecuting attorney. During that time he served on the prosecutorial committees that decided to seek the death penalty for convicted murderers Darold Stenson and Richard Morgan.
“It’s not easy to make that decision,” he said.
Melly also wrote briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court when convicted murderer Pat Jeffries petitioned the high court for judicial review of his case. Through that work, Melly was admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar.
Melly said he’s handled all kinds of cases — literally from A, aircraft, to Z, zoning.
For the past seven years, Melly has served as the Clallam County Hearing Examiner, handling land use issues.
As a part-time District Court commissioner from 2005-2011, Melly primarily handled probation, DUI and small claims cases.
When people come before him and he has no choice but to send them to jail, it isn’t fun, he said, but he will do what it takes to bring people into compliance.
“People often don’t have a vision for what they want their life to be like,” he said.
Before coming to Clallam County, Melly was a deputy prosecuting attorney in King County. He remembers a judge in King County court who was humble, smart, fair and made every appearance great.
“I thought if I wanted to be a judge someday, I would want to be like him,” Melly said.
Melly said as a child of the 1960s, public service is ingrained into his mindset. He’s always taken very seriously his role as a public person, he said.
Melly entered law school after serving two years in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer,” he said.
With a background in “everything,” Payne, 55, said he’s in the unique position to empathize with litigants because his life experience includes more than just law.
A former West Texas rancher, farmer, small business owner in the construction and computer industries, and retired Marine Corps captain, Payne said he can view things from more perspectives than just as a lawyer.
His law experience includes civil law practice in Wyoming and Washington, and criminal law practice as a defense attorney, assistant county attorney in Wyoming and deputy prosecutor in Clallam County. Payne currently is practicing as an assistant attorney general for the State of Washington.
“The fact I’ve had both prosecutorial and defense work gives me the ability to bring the balance a judge needs when he presides over the case,” he said.
The role of a judge is to interpret law and apply it to the facts, which is something learned in law school, he said.
He’s handled wrongful death and insurance defense cases as well as felony and misdemeanor criminal cases.
“You learn something on every case,” he said.
Payne has served as co-counsel on a first-degree murder case as well as defended a murder case. He said he’s seen the impact it has on the defendants and their families as well as the victims and their families.
As a judge, he will be able to see both sides, he said.
In a campaign statement, Payne said he believes judges should make fair decisions based upon open-minded and unbiased consideration of the facts and the law in each case and treat all persons equally with courtesy and respect.
A three-term District Court 2 judge, based in Forks, Rohrer, 54, said before he became a judge he represented government, business and people in many areas of law.
From private civil practice in Seattle to criminal defense work in Wenatchee, Rohrer eventually was recruited in 1991 by then-state Attorney General Ken Elkenberry to help establish a Port Angeles location for the Attorney General’s Office.
Rohrer said he has lots of trial experience and volunteered to do trials while working in the Attorney General’s Office.
Rohrer said he ran the office for about a decade before being appointed by the Clallam County Board of Commissioners to replace Susan Owens, now a state Supreme Court justice, as judge in District Court 2.
He also serves as a Superior Court commissioner. Adoption cases handled in Superior Court stand out to him, as they are very positive and an opportunity to bring families together, he said.
As a District Court judge, he runs a “people’s court,” he said. “It’s just me and them.”
Rohrer said he has a “healthy dose of common sense” he would apply to the judicial duty of following the law as applied to the facts.
He’s supportive of programs started under the current Superior Court judges such as drug court and said he’d want to continue that program. He’d like to see some technological improvements in the court rooms, but he knows funding is an issue.
His approach as a judge is to be careful and cautious.
“I’d rather do it right the first time,” he said.
Reach Amanda Winters at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Judge candidates list community service
Chairman, Port Angeles Senior High School Vocational Advisory Committee
Past president, Board of Directors of the Port Angeles Salmon Club
Retired Port Angeles Volunteer Firefighter/First Medical Responder
Past president, Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society (Clallam Unit)
Clallam/Jefferson County Pro Bono Attorneys
Clallam County District Court Judge Pro Tem
Current Clallam County Superior Court Arbitrator
Current board member, Clallam County Historical Society
Serenity House Board of Directors
North Olympic Library System Board of Trustees
United Way representative for Clallam County employees
Rotary Club host parent for foreign exchange students
Port Angeles Youth Soccer Club – board member and coach
Cub Scout board member and den leader
Board member, Clallam/Jefferson County Pro Bono lawyers
Member of the Port Angeles Rotary Club
Former president of the Clallam County Bar Association
Volunteer with the Law Advocates of Whatcom County
Board member, Hospice of Laramie, Wyo.
Board member, United Way of Laramie, Wyo., and Lubbock, Texas
Member of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce Y2K Task Force
Board member, the Police Advisory Commission of Ferndale
Past president and board member, Peninsula College Board of Trustees
Chair-elect, Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee
Board member, Peninsula Trails Coalition
Former president, Forks Chamber of Commerce board of directors
Former president, Forks Hospital Foundation board of directors