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Clark County judges court new paths

Melnick retires from long career; Veljacic succeeds him on appeals panel

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
7 Photos
Retiring state Court of Appeals Judge Rich Melnick, left, swears in incoming Judge Bernard Veljacic on Dec. 31 at the bandstand at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
Retiring state Court of Appeals Judge Rich Melnick, left, swears in incoming Judge Bernard Veljacic on Dec. 31 at the bandstand at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s a new year and new beginning for two Clark County judges. One retired from a 40-year career in law and the other took his seat on the state Court of Appeals, Division II.

But it’s not the first time Judge Bernard Veljacic has followed in the footsteps of now-retired Judge Rich Melnick.

In fact, it may be time for Melnick to take out a restraining order against his predecessor, Melnick joked.

“He’s been my lead blocker,” Veljacic said of Melnick, whom he credits for the football reference. “He said, ‘I think I’m lead blocking you.’ I said, ‘I think you’re right. I’ll take it.’ ”

Over the years, Veljacic has followed Melnick from the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to Clark County Superior Court, where he succeeded him when Melnick was appointed to the Court of Appeals. Now, Veljacic is doing it again.

“There’s that funny coincidence,” said Veljacic, 48, of Vancouver.

The two, clad in masks, and with Veljacic’s family in tow, held a brief swearing-in ceremony Dec. 31 at the bandstand at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

“It’s unfortunate they can’t do an investiture,” Melnick said of the Court of Appeals. “It’s a day I’ll never forget. There’s something to be said of tradition, but I’m pleased to be here.”

Melnick also swore in Veljacic in May 2014 when he took the Superior Court bench.

Now, after serving nearly seven years on the appeals court, Melnick is ready to pass the baton.

“I just know it’s time. It’s just time to do some other stuff,” the 65-year-old said of his decision to retire.

“I’m not sad in the traditional sense. I’m sad to be leaving the people,” he said. “I’m very confident Bernard can do the job. … He’ll serve the public well.”

40 years of service

Melnick started in May 1980 as an intern in the prosecutor’s office. After graduating from Lewis & Clark Law School and passing the bar exam, he was hired as a deputy prosecutor, he said. While a prosecutor, he headed the county’s first Appellate Bureau. In 2004, he became a Clark County District Court judge, then joined the Superior Court bench in February 2010. Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Melnick to the Court of Appeals, Division II in February 2014.

The state Court of Appeals hears appeals from people who have lost a decision made by a trial court. The Division II court convenes in Tacoma and represents 13 counties, including Clark. The court is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic, and judges are working remotely. When in-person resumes, Veljacic said he plans to commute. (Melnick had also commuted.)

Melnick said he’ll miss the people the most — the judges, lawyers and staff — and “intellectual stimulation.”

“I just worked with some great people. I’ve been so blessed,” he said. “I enjoyed the research and writing. I didn’t mind the more solitary nature of it; some people do.”

But what’s stuck with him the most over his years on the bench is encountering old drug court participants who are still clean and sober.

“That’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve done — to see the difference, to see the impact. I loved it,” he said.

Although he admits it’s “going to be an adjustment,” he has no plans to slow down in retirement.

Melnick, who lives in Hockinson, will teach a class at Lewis & Clark Law School. He’s taken over as regional director for the Alumni Admissions Council for Northwestern University, and he’s on two statewide courts committees, he said.

He also plans to play more guitar, get “a little more exercise,” and spend more time with his grandchildren and traveling — once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided. He’s grown accustomed to seeing his grandchildren via Zoom.

Assuming a new role

Veljacic noted he’ll be learning the inner workings of the appeals court during a pandemic, which means meeting his staff via Zoom teleconferencing.

Applying for a seat on the Court of Appeals was the natural next step in his career, he said; though, he didn’t anticipate it would happen so soon.

People he respected and admired encouraged him to apply — the same people who encouraged him when he applied for and was appointed to the Superior Court bench, he said.

“So I went for it,” Veljacic said. “I think intellectual curiosity is at the heart of the move for me.

“I always feel like there’s so much I have to learn. I never feel like I know everything. There’s always so much to learn in the law. It’s always evolving because it deals with people and life,” he said.

Veljacic started at a small, industrial insurance defense firm in downtown Seattle. But it was short-lived, he said. Then, in 1999, he co-founded a clinic through Union Gospel Mission Services, now called Open Door Legal Services. In 2001, he and his wife decided to relocate to the Portland metro area.

He got a job as a deputy prosecutor in the criminal division of the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, later moving to the civil division. In 2010, Veljacic went into private practice, but he returned to the prosecutor’s office the following year in the civil division, representing the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and courts.

His drive to pursue a career in the law came from his wife’s encouragement and, oddly, political ads.

Veljacic said he’d see TV ads about statutes or initiatives promising certain results, but he wanted to know for himself, rather than relying on what others told him.

“My wife told me I was too intelligent to stop there,” Veljacic said of his undergraduate degree. “It was that kind of belief, she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She forced me to imagine something different in my life.”

She drove him around to law schools on the West Coast, where he settled on Seattle University School of Law.

“I really enjoy working with the lawyers and my colleagues. This is a community that I’ve been a part of for 20 years — just two weeks shy of 20 years — and it’s been very rewarding,” Veljacic said of his time as a Clark County attorney and Superior Court judge.

“It’s wonderful being part of a small bar because you get to know everybody,” he said, adding that he also “will miss that in-court interaction — the fast pace of a trial caseload.”

There’s much less bench time as an appellate judge; it’s a lot of reading, studying, editing and writing, he said.

While on the Court of Appeals, Melnick averaged writing 70 opinions per year, he said, and was part of the three-judge panel on another 140 to 160 opinions. “It’s a ton of work up there,” he said.

“I think he will thrive up there,” Melnick said of Veljacic, noting that there is a period of adjustment. “Down here, you’re writing for yourself. Up there, you’re writing for a panel.”

Veljacic said he’s up for the challenge.

“I love the deep dive in the law; that’s one of the things about being a judge I thoroughly enjoy — the intellectual challenge and complex problems,” he said.