When Justice Susan Owens got to know Bernard Veljacic through a statewide leadership program, she said she knew he would be a judge one day.
"Bernard, I learned, was drawn to public service like a moth to a flame," she said during Veljacic's investiture ceremony Friday.
His compassion and contributions toward helping indigent people in need of legal services were among the reasons Gov. Jay Inslee gave for appointing Veljacic in April as Clark County's 33rd Superior Court judge.
Veljacic, 42, of Vancouver is a former Clark County civil deputy prosecutor. He succeeds Judge Rich Melnick, who was appointed to serve as judge on the Division II Court of Appeals.
"I'm very grateful to have been able to make a living … here in Clark County, and I really look forward to continuing that public service."
Melnick gave Veljacic his oath of office Friday in a Clark County courtroom. There was standing room only. Superior Court and District Court judges, lawyers and Veljacic's friends and family were in attendance. Among them were Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik and former Prosecuting Attorney Art Curtis, who hired Veljacic as a civil prosecutor and criminal prosecutor, respectively.
Veljacic said his immigrant grandparents, one set from Croatia and another from Mexico, and his parents inspired him to work hard and succeed despite his humble start in a rough neighborhood in East Los Angeles. His parents, Vivian and Walter Veljacic, attended Friday's ceremony. Vivian Veljacic and Bernard Veljacic's wife, Pamela, helped him put on his judge's robe as part of Friday's ceremony.
His grandmother told him "don't let anybody tell you (that) you can't do something. You can do anything you want to."
"She told me over and over, and eventually, I believed her," he said.
Veljacic earned his bachelor's degree in political science at Whittier College in 1994, when he also met his wife, Pamela.
After graduation, he decided he wanted to attend law school.
"He was watching a movie one day called 'Singles' about Seattle's grunge scene and thought 'That's cool. I guess I'll go there,'" Superior Court Judge James Rulli quipped Friday. Rulli has been Veljacic's mentor for several years.
Veljacic earned his law degree from Seattle University. His first job was at a workers compensation firm. He and a friend then founded the Union Gospel Mission Legal Services Clinic (now Open Door Legal Services) in downtown Seattle. The clinic serves indigent people in need of legal help.
"They had a vision," Rulli said. "They wanted to do that."
In the Prosecuting Attorney's Office, Veljacic first worked in Drug Court, where he spent time with Rulli.
He earned the nickname of "Cookie" because he would eat his share of cookies, which Rulli's wife baked for Drug Court defendants.
Veljacic also has served on the Clark County Diversity Advisory Committee and was a member of the Washington State Bar Association's Character and Fitness Board, which makes decisions on whether bar applicants would be ethical and capable lawyers.
He begins work on the Superior Court bench on Monday, where he'll be handling primarily family law cases, Rulli said.
Veljacic was selected out of a pool of five applicants to serve in Superior Court Position 5. He will need to seek election in November to the last two years of Melnick's four-year term. One of the other Position 5 applicants, attorney Bob Vukanovich, announced Thursday that he plans to run against Veljacic.
The county has 10 Superior Court judge positions. Superior courts are the highest state trial courts, hearing felony and larger civil matters. Superior court judges are paid $151,809 per year, plus benefits.