We put a call out to our community and asked what questions you had for these candidates. Questionnaires were sent out July 19 with responses expected by July 23. Candidates were either contacted by email, tagged via social media, called, or contacted using multiple methods whenever information was available. We also offered to extend the deadline or troubleshoot any problems if they had an interest in completing the questionnaire.
Candidates who elected not to respond:
- Bronson J. Brown
- Sharon Brown
- Shawn P. Sant
*Because the original version of our questionnaire contained a question that, in answering, would cause candidates to violate the Judicial Code of Conduct, candidate Shelley Ajax responded in a letter via email. Her response is listed at the bottom of this article.
What are the top 5 issues which you think are facing this position? How do you differ from others running on these issues?
- The appearance/application of racial bias in the court system. Our court system, currently, has the appearance and application of racial bias. There is no justice if there isn’t equal justice.
- Access to the court system by the economically disadvantaged. The economically disadvantaged do not have the same access to the civil court system as litigants with financial means. In criminal matters, the economically disadvantaged are appointed counsel, however, that counsel may not always be the same quality that defendants with financial means are able to hire.
- Successfully addressing underlying addictions that lead to unacceptable behaviors. Standard courts do not have the ability to address underlying addictions and therefore are unable to help “fix” the underlying problem. We are in need of more therapeutic courts.
- Successfully addressing underlying mental health problems that lead to unacceptable behaviors. Punishing those that are not mentally capable of correcting their conduct without addressing the underlying mental health problems does a disservice to the offender and our community. We are in need of more therapeutic courts.
- The imposition of economic sanctions (fines) on the economically disadvantaged. Imposing fines and sanctions, or imprisonment for not paying said fines, does not benefit society or the court system. Imposing jail time, which costs the community, in lieu of collecting a fine and often times rendering the offender unemployed, is detrimental to society.
I am unaware of my opponent’s positions on these questions.
Talesha “Tali” Sams:
I think the issues facing anyone in this position are: equal access to justice; alternative courts; unconscious bias; dealing with the logistics of the Corona-19 virus; and whether or not the Superior Court will continue to operate under a bi-county system.
As a judicial candidate, I am not allowed to take a position on particular matters which may come before the court, much less even express my opinion on such issues, as it may give the impression of being bias and as such, it would be improper. In addition, a few of the above issues are also better left up to the voting public to decide on. However, I can say that I have volunteered well over 100 hours of my time each year in assisting individuals on legal matters who would not normally be able to afford legal representation.
I have also assisted in establishing free legal clinics for the public through the different legal aid offices regarding bankruptcies, family law matters, landlord/tenant issues, as well as guardianships, wills and estate planning, and consumer law.
This is one way I have tried to do my part in regard to aiding equal access to justice.
I also believe that my extensive experience in diversity in and outside of the courtroom gives me and advantage over my opponents in understanding individuals regarding their different social and economical backgrounds.
Finally, I would add that a superior court judge should be well rounded in their experiences not only in the legal field, but also in life in general. From my time in the service in both peacetime and combat as well as my time in the medical and the legal field, I have dedicated my life to public service without any hesitation. The extent of my public service far outweighs that of my opponents and I believe this would be a valuable asset to the bench and the community.
Do you support Black Lives Matter? (yes/no)
Multiple candidates contacted us regarding this question, letting us know that answering it would violate the Judicial Code of Conduct. An answer to this question was originally required to submit the questionnaire. After receiving the feedback, we altered the form so that this question was no longer required for responses to be submitted. We then contacted candidates to let them know that we made the question optional.
Do you believe that there is systemic racism in Benton/Franklin counties? Thinking about actions you could take from this elected position, what do you think the top priorities of our community should be in response—particularly in our law enforcement and justice system?
I do believe that there is systemic racism in our counties. I have not witnessed overt racism, but it clearly exists. I think the bigger problem is subconscious racism. It is a pathetic statement of our justice system when racism appears to be embedded in our beliefs and application of justice system. Justice that is not or appears to be not equal is not justice. Overt racism needs to be addressed immediately and harshly. Subconscious racism needs to be addressed through awareness training and monitoring.
Talesha “Tali” Sams:
It has always been well established that there are unconscious biases throughout society in general. Benton and Franklin Counties are no exception to this issue. This can oftentimes take the form of racism.
I think that those in law enforcement, the justice system, as well as any other agency or individuals who are required to deal with the public on a daily basis as part of their employment should be required to participate in some form of racial equality training. It is only through self-awareness that we can face our own biases and change our behaviors in a manner that benefits our community.
I don't believe that a judge is in a position to mandate such training. This is more of an action which needs to occur through the voters or the legislative process, whether locally or statewide. However, I do believe, especially as seen in current events, that needs to be a top priority in our community.
How many cases have you represented someone in Benton/Franklin County Superior Court in the past 10 years?
I do not know how many cases I have represented in our counties Superior Court in the last 10 years. I have represented countless individuals in civil and family law matters. As a judge pro tem in Superior Court, I have presided over countless matters in the last 10 years.
Talesha “Tali” Sams:
Other than guardianships and some family law cases, the majority of the cases I currently handle on a day to day basis are in the area of administrative law which are not decided in Superior Court. However, when I practiced law in Spokane County, I was in Superior Court several times a week on a wide variety of different cases. In addition, when I was a prosecutor in Adams County, I was also in Superior Court pretty much Monday through Friday on different felony cases. Given that I have been practicing law for over 20 years it would be hard to even estimate the amount of cases which I have represented someone on in Superior Court. I can say that I currently represent the State in administrative hearings and I carry a active case load at any given time of approximately 50-60 cases. This includes cases before the Board of Appeals.
How many cases have you tried to a jury in your career?
I do not know how many cases I have tried to a jury in my 20+ year career. Before I had my license to practice law, I was a prosecutor in Fort Bend County, Texas. I tried many jury trials for criminal and civil infractions as an intern. As a deputy prosecutor for Franklin County, defense attorney in both counties, and civil litigator, I have had too many jury trials to recall.
Talesha “Tali” Sams:
Usually when someone wants a jury trial, it has been in the area of criminal law. Even then, in the majority of criminal law cases the defendant usually requests a bench trial which is decided by a judge and not 6 or 12 jury members. I would guess in excess of 40 in regard to criminal cases. I would also add that most of the other areas of law I have practiced in which are in Superior Court resulted in bench trials.
How many cases have you been involved in where you were a party? List them.
I don’t recall any cases where I have been directly involved as a party, other than a lawsuit against one of my former law firms. The lawsuit was filed after I had left the firm, but my name was listed in the suit regardless. I was not involved in the alleged conduct and the matter was ultimately dismissed.
Talesha “Tali” Sams:
To the best of my knowledge that I can recall, I believe there was a family law and a personal injury case in which I was a Petitioner and Plaintiff respectfully.
How many cases have you been involved in that resulted in a published opinion? List them.
I’m not sure how many of my cases were published when I was a prosecuting attorney in Washington or Texas, but there were many. Two of my civil cases ended up with published opinions. One of those was appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court and the opposing party’s appeal was denied.
Talesha “Tali” Sams:
Approximately 6-7 years ago, it was required that all DSHS Board of Appeals cases be published in the State Index. Given the amount of cases I have handled through the Board of Appeals during the last 12 years, I do not know nor would I be able to remember them all due to the volume of said cases.
Describe your direct experience in the court system. What observations did you have as a result?
My 23 years of direct experience with the court system includes as a municipal court judge, pro tem judge, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, family law and civil litigator, mediator, and arbitrator. My overall observation of our justice system is that it’s probably the best system out there, but is still needs improvement in several areas (many addressed in the prior questions).
Talesha “Tali” Sams:
My direct experience in the court system has involved litigating cases in District Court, Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, Division III, Federal District Court and Bankruptcy Court in both the Western and Eastern Districts of Washington, the Bankruptcy Appellant Panel, and the Office of Administrative Hearings and Board of Appeals. My observations have been that it is very difficult, if not impossible at times, for an individual to represent themselves. This is why I have volunteered countless hours of my time to assist individuals on a pro bono basis.
*Response from candidate Shelley Ajax
During the past ten (10) years I have represented approximately 2,500 clients in Superior Court. In addition, during my the last fifteen (15) years, I have handled 1 civil matter, 320 criminal non-traffic matters, and 206 criminal traffic matters in Benton County District Court. In Franklin County District Court, I have represented 20 criminal non-traffic matters, and 4 criminal traffic matters. In Pasco Municipal Court, I have represented 22 criminal non-traffic matters and 3 criminal traffic matters. In Benton County Superior Court I have also handled 31 adoption/third party custody matters, 9 civil matters, 189 domestic matters. In Franklin County Superior Court, I have handled 17 adoption/third party custody matters, 4 civil matters, 51 domestic matters, and 4 infractions. Before becoming an attorney, I worked at a local civil law firm, giving me 30 years of total legal experience—more than any of my opponents.
I have tried to verdict approximately 100 cases. It is important to note the difference between a domestic trial and a criminal trial. The rules are very relaxed in the domestic arena and a majority of the written work is completed with standard mandatory forms that are provided by case software. On the other hand, Superior Court criminal work requires in-depth knowledge and understanding of the rules of evidence—one of the most important attributes a Judge must have before taking the bench. In addition, criminal work in District Court is very routine, also utilizing forms that are already created. As such, trials are rare in District Court, but it is a good starting place for a lawyer to learn. Only in Superior Court, does one utilize important judicial skills such as legal research, writing briefs from scratch, and courtroom experience.
As to published opinions—those are the domain of the Appellate and Supreme Courts. Thus, trial attorneys do not participate in published opinions. I have appealed approximately 70 cases, but those opinions do not have a trial attorneys name attached to them and cannot be searched in the Washington Courts system the way it is set up. However, in the last 15 years, I have never been found ineffective or in error by a higher court, nor have I ever been disciplined or reprimanded.
My experience in the courtroom has been relatively positive. I firmly believe the Attorneys, Judges, Clerks, stenographers, bailiffs, interpreters and all involved do their very best to remain professional and uphold the integrity of the court system. In extremely contentious cases, this often difficult in some jurisdictions. But a majority of the time, our local court system has proven to be fair and unbiased with the goal of seeking justice for all.
All this said, why should you support me? Simply put, I am the best-qualified candidate for this position. Compare my wealth of trial, motion, and administrative experience against my opponents' contract work in traffic and misdemeanor court, contract lower court judicial positions, etc., and the choice is clear. If you will look at my enclosed resume, you will see that I am the more experienced Superior Court trial attorney, having tried to verdict approximately 100 cases.
As a Benton-Franklin Superior Court Arbiter for the last 10 years, I have ruled on evidentiary motions, held full hearings, and rendered verdicts in tough civil cases. I have a reputation for being fair and impartial, experienced, and knowledgeable in the law. I am known as an Arbiter one can trust to follow the law, and never legislate any personal agenda. Retired judges, attorneys: both civil and criminal, defense and prosecution/plaintiff, and elected officials of both parties endorse me. Business owners, both large and small, endorse me and the list is growing daily.
Finally, if chosen by our community to be seated as the next Benton-Franklin County Superior Court Judge, I will continue to serve all our community members in a fair and unbiased manner. I will continue to uphold the integrity of the justice system by exercising neutral judicial temperament, outstanding ethics, and civic and professional responsibility. I look forward to continuing to serve our community as your next Benton-Franklin County Superior Court Judge.