Judicial race strongly flavored by uproar over judge's style in court

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

The candidates

DAVID GREGERSON

Age: 44.

Residence: Vancouver.

Campaign website:gregersonforjudge.com.

Money raised: $23,720.

Major endorsers: Former Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard, state Rep. Sharon Wylie, former Vancouver Mayor Bruce Hagensen, past Clark County Bar Association president David Ridenour.

JOHN WULLE

Age: 62.

Residence: Vancouver.

Campaign website:judgejohnwulle.com.

Money raised: $9,425.

Major endorsers: Vancouver Police Officers’ Guild, Pat Jollota, Clark County Sheriff’s Deputies Guild, the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

With judicial conduct allegations hanging over his head, Clark County Superior Court Judge John Wulle is running to keep his seat against challenger David Gregerson, a private civil attorney.

The allegations against the judge have been the backdrop to the race. Shortly after news broke in February that the Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct charged Wulle with engaging in discourteous and undignified behavior, Gregerson announced that he planned to run against the judge.

Gregerson's candidacy is uncommon: Because attorneys often feel intimidated to run against judges who make rulings on their cases, the 10 Superior Court judges mainly run unopposed every four years.

With judicial races, the winner is decided in the primary if there are only two candidates, meaning voters will know the final outcome after the Aug. 7 election.

The Vancouver lawyer said the charges against Wulle compelled him to launch a visible and expensive campaign. So far, he's raised $23,670 in donations, compared with Wulle's $8,925.

"I just felt, under these circumstances, the legal community and the citizens of the county deserve a choice," Gregerson said.

A hearing by the judicial board is set for Aug. 27, so voters will not know whether Wulle will be sanctioned until after the primary election. If found guilty of violating judicial codes of conduct, Wulle could face a penalty as severe as a censure with a recommendation for his suspension or removal from the bench.

The charges concern four courtroom outbursts, including a hearing when Wulle called a juvenile defendant "stupid" for wanting to plead guilty without his attorney present. In another hearing, Wulle told a high-profile defendant to "shut your damn mouth," threatening to have him gagged. In another case, he told a man using a Russian interpreter, "this is not the Soviet Union."

Wulle adamantly denies that he violated codes of conduct. He admits to losing his temper, but says the charges are an "abuse of power" by the board. The board censured him in 2007 for his conduct at a California training conference, when he used profanity and gave an obscene gesture, among other behavior.

"Sorry, the street kid from New York came out," Wulle said. "In this one, I have chosen not to roll over and play dead."

He, instead, turns the lens on Gregerson, saying he has substantially more litigation experience than Gregerson. Wulle was a Clark County District Court judge for three years before taking the Superior Court bench in 2000. Before that, he was an assistant attorney general for 14 years.

"My career has been spent in that room or one like it," Wulle said, seated in his chambers, gesturing toward his courtroom.

While Superior Court judges have jurisdiction over criminal cases, civil cases involving more than $75,000, divorces and probate cases, Wulle said criminal cases dominate his daily court docket.

Gregerson, a Vancouver native and lawyer for 20 years, specializes in civil law and is the principal of the law firm Gregerson & Langsdorf. He said his firm also handles family law and criminal defense.

To Wulle's jab that he lacks litigation experience, Gregerson said: "I have umpteenth more experience than he did at this stage," comparing himself to Wulle before he became a judge.

Over his law career, Gregerson said, he's taken numerous personal injury cases to trial. In one noteworthy case in 2002, he won $228,410 for his client in a lawsuit against Taco Bell. The plaintiff had sued the fast-food restaurant after biting into a steel ball in his order of nachos.

A law graduate from Vanderbilt University, Gregerson has served as a pro tem judge in Clark County District Court for eight years, filling in when judges are out of the office. He estimates he's been called as a pro tem judge between 20 and 30 times.

A lawyer for 29 years, Wulle has been challenged twice before. He won his first bid for the Superior Court bench in 2000 against three opponents. He faced a challenger again in 2008, when lawyer Ernest Edsel ran against him.

Amid the allegations, Wulle points to the community support he's garnered. The Vancouver Police Officers' Guild, Clark County Sheriff's Deputies Guild and the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police have endorsed him. Several local attorneys wrote letters to the judicial board, calling Wulle smart and fair.

And then there are local residents who have expressed support, he said. "They said in Olympia what I did was wrong," Wulle said, "yet when I go out in the community, people are literally patting me on the back."

But Gregerson believes Clark County deserves a change. "I think accountability is important for public service, even on the bench," Gregerson said. He added this about Wulle: "It's no longer about the good of the public; it's about protecting himself."

The nonpartisan job pays $148,836 a year.

Ballots are expected to be mailed Wednesday.

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