Retired Superior Court judge censured by state board

Poyfair says he left early to avoid board’s discipline

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County Superior Court Judge Edwin Poyfair, who retired this week, was censured Friday by a state judicial board — a discipline that the judge says forced him to leave office early.

In a statement outlining the sanction, the Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct said Poyfair, 68, violated judicial canons in his handling of two parental custody cases last year. The sanction, which is the strictest punishment short of seeking suspension or removal of a judge, was imposed at a public meeting Friday.

Poyfair, who left office April 30 and has moved to Arizona, did not attend the hearing. He was aware of the board’s investigation for the past year and a half.

He said he initially agreed with the judicial board’s charges but then notified board members last month that he was retracting his stipulation because of his retirement. He said the board went ahead with the discipline, anyway.

The former judge said he had planned in January to serve out the remainder of his term, which ends Dec. 31, but moved the date up after learning about the impending discipline.

“Did it push me out of office? Absolutely,” Poyfair said by telephone Friday.

He disputes the allegations outlined in the sanction.

In one of the custody cases, the board said, Poyfair failed to order the return of a child to her biological mother when the mother raised concerns about the prospective adoptive father’s sexual misconduct allegations.

The judge gave the biological parents another hearing to challenge the adoption, but, the board said, didn’t adequately explain how an adoption can still be revoked before it is finalized.

The commission also said that the judge’s demeanor intimidated the parents from seeking such action.

The board said Poyfair questioned the biological father about his immigration status and told the biological mother when she attended a Jan. 28, 2011, hearing: “Ma’am, this isn’t Walmart. And he doesn’t get to go to the shelf and pick a baby off, all right? … It’s not taking back a pair of shoes,” according to the board’s sanctions.

Poyfair’s questioning about whether the biological father was a legal immigrant — and discovering he was not — intimidated the father, the judicial board said.

“The judge’s intemperate demeanor reasonably appeared to inhibit the litigants’ ability to present their concerns to the court,” the board said, noting a parent’s legal status has no bearing on whether he can keep a child.

At a hearing on March 30, 2011, the board said Poyfair was discourteous when he called a parent in a divorce case a “ ‘liar’ and ‘loudly chastised the litigant and her attorney to ‘just listen,’ when the person was apparently taking notes,” according to the sanctions.

Poyfair admits to losing his patience at the hearings, but thinks the discipline is heavy-handed.

“My demeanor and attitude, I’m sorry for,” Poyfair said. But about the board’s decision to censure him, he said: “It’s just not right.”

“If a judge can’t raise his voice and say, ‘Listen,’ we’re getting from the sublime to the ridiculous,” Poyfair said.

He criticized the investigation by the judicial board, saying members were “adversarial” in their treatment of him.

“I don’t know if they want you to be judges anymore or just stereotyped individuals,” he said.

Appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1992, Poyfair predominantly heard family law cases. In a news release, the board noted that he was a well-respected judge.

“In mitigation, respondent has a long history of positive public service on the bench,” the news release said.

In 1995, Poyfair was admonished by the commission, the lowest form of punishment, for giving testimony in a court case for a Vancouver attorney and longtime friend who was seeking visitation rights of a child. The commission said that law prevents a judge from giving such opinions without a subpoena.

Poyfair said he did not want the commission’s decision to stain his career in a position that he says he’s always loved.

“This has bothered me a lot. I don’t take that job lightly,” he said. “Any child who gets involved in my court, I want to be protected.”

Since Poyfair has already retired, the board’s decision has no bearing on his position; in other cases, disciplined judges may have to take training courses or undergo counseling

Another Superior Court judge, John Wulle, is currently charged with conduct violations relating to his courtroom demeanor in four hearings. He has a hearing June 18 before the commission to determine whether he should be disciplined.

Gregory Gonzales was appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to succeed Poyfair. He was sworn in to office Friday.

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