Next judge knows lots of the ropes already

Dan Stahnke was working in the courts years before he was admitted to the bar

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Dan Stahnke was in court when convicted killer Clark Hazen was condemned to die in 1986.

He helped haul Westley Allan Dodd to and from the courtroom during the man’s high-profile 1990 trial for sexually abusing and killing three young boys.

He’s seen judges be sworn in and then, years later, retire.

There are local attorneys who weren’t even born when Stahnke worked his first trial.

And all this occurred before the 56-year-old Ridgefield man even earned his law degree.

Stahnke rose through the ranks from a jail custody officer, to a private attorney, then a court commissioner. This week, he’ll be taking a top legal job, succeeding retiring Superior Court Judge Roger Bennett on Sept. 1.

His path to the bench was certainly not conventional, attorneys say, but has given Stahnke a perspective on the judicial system that few judges have.

“He’s probably seen more trials than most lawyers in Clark County,” said friend Steve Thayer, a criminal defense attorney.

Colleagues say his past has given him a humility and personable attitude with attorneys and defendants alike.

“He’s always had to work for something. Nothing’s ever been handed to him,” said former law partner Jeff Barrar, another defense attorney. “I think he’ll do the same on the bench.”

 Stahnke said he’ll tackle the new job with the same attitude that people have come to expect from him.

“I want to be approachable,” he said. “If you’re not approachable, (the case) never gets resolved. That’s what I always want: the right result.”

Dog catcher?

When Stahnke was 26, he decided he needed a career. He had an associates degree from University of Idaho, but had spent most of his time in college “playing baseball and not going to class,” he said.

Not knowing exactly what to do, he filled out a civil service application.

“It was either being a dog catcher or a jail custody officer,” Stahnke said with a grin.

He started at the Clark County Jail in 1981.

“I spent a lot of graveyard shifts fighting hostile inmates,” he recalled. “Yes, I’ve had my nose socked in before.”

Three years later, he was assigned to the transport unit, in charge of taking inmates to and from court.

He said he got really good at reading the courtroom players and drama. It was like being a fly on the wall, he said: He saw the judge, the attorneys, the defendant and jurors in a different light.

“You get really good at reading people’s emotions,” he said. “I think it gave me intuition into people.”

One time, custody officer Stahnke caused a stir during the trial of Hazen, who was later convicted of killing two Fargher Lake residents. When the attorneys dimmed the lights in preparation for a slide show, Stahnke was worried the inmate would dart away in the dark.

“I jumped out and put my hands on the first person there,” he said.

Turned out it was defense attorney Tom Phelan.

A new direction

After several years as a transport officer, something began to stir in Stahnke. He began to watch the lawyers with a new kind of conviction.

It wasn’t an overnight thing, but Stahnke gradually became more interested in legal work and the convolutions of the process.

“I believed I could do it before I committed to it,” he recalled.

He consulted his wife, Debbie. It was the same year, 1988, that they finished building their house in Ridgefield and that his father died.

“We kicked the idea around for a while,” Stahnke is quoted as saying in a 1994 Columbian article. “To be honest, in the early conversations, I never thought it would happen. But then the house was done and my father died. He was a real go-getter. At that point, I decided to do it.”

Stahnke said that he also hoped to inspire his then-young children.

“I wanted to give them that extra step,” he said. “I wanted to show the kids there’s more education to be had.”

Not wanting to uproot his family, he applied to only one law school, Lewis and Clark College in Portland. He started fall classes in 1989.

When his supervisor at the jail, the current undersheriff, Joe Dunegan, found out about his plans, Dunegan said he wasn’t surprised.

“Dan was destined to be something other than an employee who worked in the jail,” Dunegan recalled.

He said Stahnke had a different attitude than other custody officers.

“You can end up being bitter, getting stuck in the rut of seeing just the bad side of people,” Dunegan said. “But Dan was able to see both sides. He was able to see the good in the people.”

A dream

After four years of being on the go from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., Stahnke graduated from law school. He soon received an offer to work at the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, but opted to join the law firm that acquaintance Barrar operated with attorney Don English.

While criminal law was what sparked Stahnke’s initial interest, he became the firm’s family law attorney and also handled some collections cases. Barrar was already the firm’s criminal defense lawyer.

“He took it because that was what was needed,” Barrar recalled. As a family law lawyer: “He basically was seen as very fair. He wouldn’t be filing anything frivolous.”

Stahnke said he thinks that area of law gave him a solid foundation for his next job in 2007: A Superior Court commissioner, which entails hearing family cases, juvenile criminal hearings, domestic violence protections orders and substituting for Superior Court judges.

He saw the commissioner position as a step to his ultimate dream of becoming a judge.

Stahnke said one of the reasons he wanted to seek judicial office was to make a difference.

Jordan Munday, a participant in the Superior Court’s Family Treatment Court, said Stahnke already has achieved that as a commissioner.

From late 2009 to 2010, Munday participated in the therapeutic court program, which aims to rehabilitate drug-using parents and reunite them with their kids. He remembers at first being skeptical of Stahnke’s rulings. The commissioner told Munday that he shouldn’t move to Alaska to find work as a fisherman, but should instead stay and focus on his kids. But Munday wanted the money.

“He said, ‘Your kids need you now more than ever,’ ” Munday said. “That wasn’t what I wanted. That’s what I needed. I have a great relationship with my kids now.”

Stories like that are what propelled Stahnke further to his eventual dream.

He said he sees defendants just as regular people. “They may have tattoos on their faces,” he added, but they’re people.

He wants to go forward with that same attitude, not forgetting where he started.

“In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be a Superior Court judge,” Stahnke said, sitting behind his desk in the Juvenile Center on a recent afternoon. “Can you believe it? A Superior Court judge!”

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; www.twitter.com/col_courts; www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker.