Judge hopefuls address Port Angeles chamber

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES — The two candidates vying to replace retiring Clallam County Superior Court Judge Ken Williams touted their experience and discussed ideas for expediting the criminal judicial system in a Monday forum.

Clallam County Hearing Examiner Christopher Melly, 60, and Forks District Court Judge Erik Rohrer, 54, pleaded their cases at the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Red Lion Hotel.

Both are on the countywide ballot in the all-mail election that ends Nov. 6.

Rohrer said his 11 years of experience as an elected judge sets him apart.

“As a judge, I’ve developed a reputation for being fair, for being reasonable, for being impartial and also for treating everyone in my courtroom with dignity and respect,” Rohrer said.

The West End judge, who also works as a court commissioner, said he has a reputation for making sound decisions, and that none of his decisions has been reversed on appeal.

“I’m proud of that fact,” he said.

Melly opened by addressing the delays in felony trials.

“This is no disrespect to the sitting judges,” he said. “This is a problem that has been going on at least since I came to the county in 1983. Things just move too slowly.”

Clallam County Superior Court is the state’s primary trial court for the region. It also oversees juvenile court, family court and drug courts.

The four-year elected judge position pays $148,832 annually, half of which is paid with state funds.

Melly spent three years as a prosecutor in King County before a 22-year stint as a Clallam County prosecutor.

He was the chief deputy in the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for 17 years and appointed as hearing examiner in 2005.

“I’ve been involved in so many different things; if you pick a topic, I probably have done something in that over the course of my 25-year career,” he said.

Rohrer was a private and public practice attorney before he was elected to the bench. He opened and managed the North Olympic Peninsula’s first office of the state attorney general 22 years ago.

“I’m the candidate with the greater trial experience,” he said.

Rohrer said an elected judge “has a great deal more responsibility” than a court commissioner.

“An elected judge is directly accountable to the people,” he said. “An elected judge is responsible for every aspect of the court.”

Melly, a Marine who served in Vietnam, said he would consider forming a therapeutic veterans court in Clallam County, “if in fact there’s a population for it.”

“And I don’t know if there is,” he said

“It may be that there’s not that big of a population of veteran felons, but if there is I would like to explore the possibility of creating a special court.”

To that point, Rohrer said it “might be wonderful” to have a veterans court but didn’t think there is a need.

“I’ve looked into it,” he said. “If we’ve done our homework, we’d realize there are only really veterans courts in five counties — none of them are rural counties.”

Rohrer said veterans courts exist in counties that have federal Veterans Affairs personnel who coordinate outreach programs to veterans courts.

“In talking with them, they’ve convinced me that the program really wouldn’t work very well in Clallam County,” Rohrer said.

When asked to elaborate on his ideas to speed up the criminal justice system, Melly said he would take a close look at every motion for a continuance.

“Ultimately, as the judge, you have the responsibility for control of your docket,” Melly said. “You determine what cases are going to move through and how quickly they are going to move through.”

Melly cited a case a few years ago that had 14 motions for a continuance granted. He said trial delays have been “endemic to the county for 30 years.”

“There are legitimate reasons for why delays occur,” Melly added, citing crime lab delays and witness unavailability.

“There are probably a lot of illegitimate reasons why the continuances and delays occur.”

Melly proposed a bar-bench conference for attorneys and judges to sit down to “see if we can move things along.”

Rohrer, too, said he would like to see the courts move faster.

“I think we all would,” he said.

Rohrer said he would hold attorneys to certain expectations and deny frivolous motions for continuances. He said he would like to bring more technology into the court and improve access to court records.

“I’ve talked to judges across the state about this, and no judge has a perfect answer for solving the problem of court congestion and increasing efficiencies,” Rohrer said.

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: October 08. 2012 5:52PM
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