Press Talk: The sad case of John Wulle

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor

Published:

 

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian's editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.

Former Clark County Judge John Wulle is in the middle of a mess — again.

You might recall that Wulle was voted out as a Superior Court judge in 2012. It’s pretty unusual for a judge not to get re-elected, but — as noted — he found himself in messes both inside and outside of the courtroom. And that ended his career on the bench.

Now he has been charged with DUI after allegedly driving while intoxicated to a Safeway supermarket in Salmon Creek. He allegedly stumbled out of his car carrying a bottle of vodka.

His defense? Traumatic brain injuries sustained years ago.

First, if true, we all should have great empathy for Wulle. Any injury, particularly a brain injury, could have severe consequences to one’s well-being.

But this also raises troubling questions. Because his attorney said the injuries happened “years ago,” that may have placed Wulle on the bench with these brain injuries. And if he was on the bench — what are all of those defendants who went before him thinking now? Are there any convictions ready to be questioned because of this revelation?

Hopefully, Wulle’s defense will present medical records to support his contention and place dates on when the brain injuries happened.

Look, I understand that defense attorneys’ job is to do as much as possible to support their clients. They are obligated by law to use anything and everything that could help their clients avoid conviction.

So, even if Wulle’s best defense could create unbecoming consequences in earlier court cases, the attorney will use it.

• • •

All of that being said, what is the likelihood of this case going to trial? Well, if statistics are any indication, not likely at all. Generally speaking, 90 percent of court cases get resolved before trial.

You might think — from all of that TV stuff — that attorneys’ best skills are arguing before a jury.

Wrong.

An attorney’s best skill is negotiating. So this case should see an awful lot of that. But however this case proceeds, it will be tricky for political reasons. When you have a former judge going before a judge, the legal system has to be very careful about the perception of favoritism.

This perception has already played out when The Columbian’s simple request to have a photographer present at a review hearing was denied.

The Columbian has put in hundreds of courtroom photo requests in Clark County, and virtually all of them have been accepted.

But there was a key difference in this case.  It was in Skamania County, not Clark County.

If you’re wondering why Skamania —  well, none of the judges here wanted to take the former judge’s case.

And even the Skamania County judge wasn’t interested in hearing it, so a visiting Klickitat County judge —  Jeffrey Baker —  came to Skamania County to hear the case.

And it was Baker who denied our request.

But why?

So I called him. I’ll admit I was half expecting an “I’m the judge, and what I say goes, period!” kind of answer. You see, judges have wide discretion when it comes to running a courtroom. And deciding if cameras can be used is part of that wide discretion.

But there was no power play at all with Baker. He simply said he asked if cameras were typically in Skamania County courtrooms, and the answer he got back was “no.”

So, Baker said —  as a visiting judge —  he simply decided to do what was typically done.

The person Baker asked was Skamania County Court Administrator Karen Wyninger. And she would know. She’s been around the court for 43 years. And she said she could remember only one time when cameras were allowed in the district courtroom.

But if Baker had dug a little deeper, he would have found out why cameras are typically not in the courtroom there. Wyninger acknowledged that very few people ever ask to have cameras in the courtroom.

And I get that. Skamania County is pretty small. If you said the county had 12,000 people, you’d be stretching. But even if Skamania County didn’t like cameras in the courtroom, Baker needs to guard against appearing that he is granting a favor to the former judge. Perception —  oftentimes —  is everything.

And Baker acknowledges that possible perception.

• • •

When all is said and done, I feel sorry for Wulle. So do a lot of people. Still, the public wants a fair and evenhanded shake when people of note are in the courtroom.

The Columbian — including its cameras — helps to provide that.