Pierce County Superior Court Judge, Dept. 10 – Philip Thornton

Judicial Questionnaire 2022

Candidate Info


Candidate Name:     Philip Thornton
Position Sought:     Pierce County Superior Court Judge, Dept. 10
Are you an incumbent for this position?     Non-incumbent
Home Legislative District:     33rd

Campaign Info

Campaign Manager or Point of Contact:     Heather Thornbton
Website     https://www.philipforjudge.com/

Part I – Candidate Background

1. Please describe your qualifications, education, employment, past community and civic activity, as well as any other relevant experience.

I believe of possess a the qualifications to be a Superior Court Judge garnered from my 33.5 years of serving the citizens of Pierce County. As a current Pierce County Superior Court Commissioner, I decide a wide variety of legal issues facing the citizens of Pierce County including family law matters, minor settlements, civil supplemental proceedings, civil protection petitions, unlawful detainers, probate and estate matters, dependency matters, involuntary commitment trials, and juvenile criminal matters. I have also served in the adult felony arraignment and Probation Review dockets. As a current Court Commissioner, I have decided many of the types of cases handled by Superior Court Judges.

Before becoming a judicial officer, I owned and operated a law practice for 29 years in Downtown Tacoma. As a lawyer, I helped families and individuals in a wide array of legal matters. I have represented individuals in a variety of criminal matters in Municipal, State, and Federal Courts. The emphasis of my practice was on representation of individuals charged with serious violent felony matters. I was certified by the Washington State Supreme Court as qualified as trial counsel for individuals charged with capital murder. I have tried over 200 criminal trials including two capital murder trials. I have also represented countless individuals in family law and personal injury matters. Earlier in my career, I was appointed to represent parents in Dependency matters in juvenile Court. My unique lived experience informs a wise, nimble, and creative thought process on the bench.

I have also worked collaboratively in various committees and organizations to address systemic issues facing our court systems. As a lawyer, I have been appointed by the County Counsel to the Department of Assigned Counsel Advisory Board. I have been the Private Bar Representative for the Criminal Law Best Practices Committee to address criminal case processes. I have chaired the Criminal law Section of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association. I have participated in the “Friends of the Pierce County Law Library” to advise and assist in budgetary recommendations. As a Commissioner, I have participated in the Domestic Violence/Civil Protection Order Work Group to address access to the court for domestic violence victims. I am an active member in the following Superior Court committees: Local Rules Committee, Minor Guardianship Best Practices Working Group, Involuntary Treatment Act Hearings Workgroup, the Pre-Trial Release – Long Term Study Project and Family Law Committee. The ability to work collaboratively to address the concerns and deficiencies of the Court system is a significant task of a Superior Court Judge. I have demonstrated commitment to addressing the needs of the community through my committee work for Superior Court.

2. What prompted you to run for this office?

I am running for Judge of Pierce County Superior Court because I am deeply committed to the law, public service, and I want to continue to give back to the Pierce County Community. I have served the Pierce County community for over three decades as a local lawyer and Superior Court Commissioner. I bring a wealth of lived experience and wisdom to the bench and to each case I am charged with deciding. I possess the work ethic, knowledge, integrity, and empathy to distinguish myself as a Pierce County Superior Court Judge.

3. What do you believe are the most important qualifications for a judge or justice?

Aside from a wide depth of practical legal experience and knowledge of the law, a judge must have the ability to be compassionate, empathetic and open-minded. A judge must treat all individuals with dignity, respect, and grace. If all litigants are given a fair opportunity to state their case, and they feel they have been heard, then their respect for the decision will increase. A judge must patiently address competing personalities and agendas with sensitivity and understanding. A judge must work hard to identify and recognize their own implied biases and prejudices and set those aside. A judge must stay humble and constantly seek new ways to understand the different cultures and backgrounds of the litigants before them, in the hopes of reaching the most equitable and just decision.

4. What priorities are you seeking to address with your campaign?

The top three priorities I would seek to address as a Superior Court Judge are:
a. Maintaining a Competent, Knowledgeable, Responsive Judiciary
b. Maintaining Community Respect for the Rule of Law
c. Advocating for Responsible, Sensible Alternative Sentencing Options.

Part II – Access to Justice

1. If elected, how will you work to improve access to justice, particularly for communities and constituencies that do not understand the American legal system?

Judges are uniquely positioned to enhance equal access to justice. Judges are, at times, the face of justice. Judges are better positioned to know where needs arise and can take action to ensure justice is truly equal. Judges can educate, not only from the bench but also in the community, about available resources and means to access them. Judges can assist with procedures of the court. More importantly, judges play an invaluable role in how the public perceives access to justice. By listening and treating each litigant with respect and dignity, a judge can enhance the public access to justice by making it less frightening and intimidating. I also believe that we need to be open to alternative or non-traditional methods of dispute resolution to encourage access to justice.

We as a Court need to promote and educate our community in the programs which already exist to assist pro se litigants in navigating the judicial system. The Pierce County Superior Court provides facilitators, pamphlets, and brochures as to procedures and pleadings. We need to lean on our local Bar to provide more robust pro bono service for civil cases. Our Court can facilitate programs such as Pro Bono Legal Clinic and “Peoples’ Court” programs to help educate the public about the processes of the judicial system. Our Court is in the process of developing short video explanations of various legal procedures which will be available on the Superior County website. If elected, I will advocate for additional funding to facilitate these reforms.

2. Is Washington relying too much on court fees to cover the cost of operating our judicial system? How do you believe our courts should be funded?

The judicial system is the third branch of government. It provides a service to our citizen in allowing them a place and the means to resolve disputes as well as affords the community the opportunity to hold citizen accountable for their actions. Like most services, there is a cost associated with these benefits. Individuals who utilize the systems should bear some of the cost associated with the use of the system. For example, in Pierce County lawyers are afford the right to electronically submit motions and order for a judge/commissioner to review and sign. It affords the lawyers the benefit of not having to come to the courthouse and wait to see a judge to sign a routine order and drive back to their office. The Court charges a nominal fees for this opportunity. The funds generated from this service provide the County the ability to hire another court commissioner and staff to address other backlogged areas of the law such as domestic violence cases and unlawful detainer matters. I am able to see the benefits of fee based court related services.

3. Would you, if elected, bring restorative justice as a goal to your court room? * If yes, describe how that could look.

The Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits a judicial officer or candidate from prejudging or committing to particular outcome in litigated dispute. Notwithstanding, I am a firm believer in the benefits of restorative justice goal. Affording a space and opportunity for a victim to be heard and allowing them to regain their voice, trust and dignity should be the goal of every judicial officer. Affording a perpetrator to make proper amends to a victim helps in the restorative relationship.

4. What ideas can you offer to make our judicial system more open, transparent, and responsive?

Staying active in the community and service organizations are a couple of ways I have found to educate and promote the Pierce County Superior Court. I participate in several community groups such as the Lawyers Helping Hungry Children and Habitat for Humanity. I also volunteer at several food banks in the community. I speak with individuals about what I do and what they could and should expect from the court system. Continued and concerted contact with the community will ease the informational divide regarding the court and its function.

5. What are your thoughts on how our courts could permanently incorporate the growing virtual options after the need of the pandemic has passed?

Pierce County has permanently adopted some of the virtual options for a wide variety of court such as Juvenile Court, Family Law Show Cause dockets, Involuntary commitment dockets as well as unlawful detainer dockets. I am a strong supporter of these reforms as it significantly increased access to justice for the majority of individuals.

6. Justice delayed is justice denied, what are your thoughts on how to catch up on the current backlog of cases awaiting trail? Additionally what changes to the current court system would you implement to insure speedy justice?

I would advocate for a designation of resources to address the specific caseload or court congestion. The Superior Court currently allocates a specific number of judges to an assigned area of the law for a defined period of time. A readjusting or reallocating of judges to an alternative area of law to address the backlog will increase the opportunities of parties to try their case. For example, 7 judges are assigned to Criminal law rotation and 7 judges are assigned to civil case rotations each year. By re-allocating several judges to the alternative area will free up more courtrooms to try cases. I would also advocate mandatory settlement conferences assignment for judges to assist in the potentially resolving civil and family law cases. I would also advocate for a designated once per month night court to assist in addressing the backlog in family law cases. I would also seek to increase the availability of Court Commissioners to try cases on a as needed basis.

7. What judicial reforms do you support to achieve greater equity and inclusion for BIPOC individuals in our communities?

Part of the remedy to achieve greater equity and inclusion for all individuals is an acknowledgement that a problem of inequitable access exist. Speaking with my judicial colleagues about these issues and encouraging them to identify their implied biases can be a step in the direction of change. Promoting diversity and inclusion throughout our own Court will assist. Educating the bench through formal training can prevent much of the abuse. Promoting programs which reduce the barriers to access to justice. One of the major contributing barriers is the high cost of legal advice and representation. Promoting pro bono programs through our courts can help reduce some of those barriers.

Improving access to justice should be the priority focus of our Superior Court. We as a Court have failed to provide timely notice of the resources and assistance available to Pro Se litigants. Superior Court provides workshops, facilitators, access to pro bono services and legal services referrals, as well as information of on-line forms available to pro se litigant. However, we have not fully informed the public of these resources prior to the litigants appearing before the court. We need to be better at informing the public of the resources and services available to them prior to the day of the hearing. Often a hearing will be continued to allow a party to access the resources or services. A delay in justice is harmful to both sides of a case. Better education as to how the court system works will also eliminate the fear and trepidation in accessing the court. I have observed viable claims abandoned by litigants because of their fear of navigating the legal system.

By typing my name below, I declare under penalty of perjury the foregoing is true and correct.
Printed Name     Philip Thornton
Date (mm/dd/yy)     04/24/2024

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