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News / Clark County News

Clark County Superior Court strips Zimmerman of power over its cases

County's top judges say Zimmerman's credibility as a judicial officer diminished by comments about Kevin Peterson Jr.

By Jerzy Shedlock, Columbian Breaking News Reporter,
Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor, and
Mark Bowder, Columbian Metro Editor
Published: March 17, 2021, 3:20pm

The legal community and local officials continued to turn on District Court Judge Darvin Zimmerman on Wednesday after comments he made last week about the death of a Black man came to light.

Clark County’s Superior Court judges have stripped Zimmerman of any ability to preside over proceedings involving Superior Court in response to comments he made about 21-year-old Kevin Peterson Jr., who was shot by sheriff’s deputies as they attempted to arrest him.

“It is the opinion of the Superior Court bench that your comments demonstrate bias and a lack of impartiality,” the court wrote in a statement signed by its 11 judges and four commissioners. “We believe the comments diminish your credibility as a judicial officer. They do not reflect the values of our court.”

The statement does not call for his resignation but states the judges believe Zimmerman violated the judicial canons of conduct.

More on Zimmerman

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The statement, which was forwarded to District Court Presiding Judge Kelli Osler and the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct, was issued Wednesday afternoon, following a statement from a group of top Clark County prosecutors concluding that Zimmerman’s comments about Peterson and his family show he is not qualified to remain a judge.

Those comments, inadvertently captured on video cameras and broadcast online, have also prompted condemnations from his fellow District Court judges, a decision by prosecutors to seek his removal from all of their criminal cases and a call from prominent law firm Vancouver Defenders for him to resign.

Zimmerman, 70, said Tuesday he would temporarily step away from the District Court bench, where he has served since 1986.

Prosecutors’ statement

The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Action and Reform Committee did not go as far as calling for Zimmerman’s resignation but said he is incapable of being impartial and unbiased, and the committee agrees with others who have spoken out on the issue.

“Hate, bias, and intolerance must be eradicated from the courtroom. As prosecutors, our role is to promote equitable justice, at all times, which includes speaking out against injustices when we see them,” said a statement released by the committee, signed by chairperson and Senior Deputy Prosecutor Deborah Wechselblatt.

In its statement, the committee said it supports Prosecutor Tony Golik’s decision to move to disqualify the judge from all pending matters involving the prosecutor’s office, because “equitable justice cannot happen in Judge Zimmerman’s courtroom.”

“We commit ourselves to continuing to educate ourselves, and others, on the ongoing issues of systemic racism and bias within the justice system and Clark County. We encourage our community, and especially those in the legal community, to seek out educational opportunities and resources to better understand these complex and layered issues,” the committee said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the NAACP’s local chapter applauded Golik for taking action, and called for Zimmerman’s resignation or removal.

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The organization previously said Zimmerman’s comments were unsurprising, and it was looking into his term length. Judges are elected to four-year terms; Zimmerman’s expires at the end of 2022.

“We know now that Judge Zimmerman presents an intolerable, unacceptable and unnecessary risk to BIPOC defendants, and a potential liability to Clark County and Clark County courts,” the NAACP Vancouver statement reads.

The organization also called for a thorough investigation of Zimmerman’s past criminal cases involving BIPOC defendants and the Clark County Sheriff Office “to ascertain that the judge acted in an ethical and lawful manner.”

Additionally, it urged some groups that have spoken out against Zimmerman’s comments to take a stronger stance and call for his resignation, too.

“He and his attorney have implied that the question of his fitness for duty should not be assessed solely on the basis of one bad day out of his career. We disagree. What the judge expressed on that one day underlies his courtroom conduct everyday and cannot be simply ‘excused,’ ” the statement reads.

“We do hope that Judge Zimmerman will decide to work in the community to help rid our judicial system and our community of racial bias whether overt, implicit or systemic. But for the good of Clark County, he needs to do that off the bench and as a former judge.”

City moves to disqualify

Vancouver City Attorney Jonathan Young told The Columbian he and City Prosecutor Kevin McClure sent a letter informing the District Court that attorneys would be moving to disqualify Zimmerman from hearing city cases, as well.

Young spoke about the course of action during Monday’s city council meeting.

“That’s not a decision that prosecutors take lightly. It’s a very serious consideration,” Young said of filing a motion for disqualification.

“However, we’ve listened to the comments that Councilmember Ty Stober referenced by Judge Zimmerman; we do believe that they display bias and have the potential to erode public confidence in the results that we deliver for this community,” he continued.

Councilor Laurie Lebowsky thanked Young for outlining the course of action.

“I just want to say that the comments from Judge Zimmerman that were recorded, I find repugnant, and I’m sure my colleagues feel the same way,” she said.

On Wednesday, Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz issued a statement urging Zimmerman to step down “so a new judge can be appointed and could take an active role in rebuilding trust in our community.”

She said his comments are indicative of Clark County’s systemic racism, violate the public’s trust, and raise questions about his judgment and past judicial decisions, particularly those that involved people of color.

“The wound from Judge Zimmerman’s comments is like so many other wounds people of color in Clark County have to bear every single day. He failed to recognize those wounds and accept them as real. He failed to find empathy for the wounds of others. He failed to apologize and mean it, and he failed to make amends. And so the wound remains open,” Lentz wrote.

Lentz criticized a statement released on Zimmerman’s behalf Tuesday, describing it as deflection and saying it left “many of us feeling that he is not sorry for what he said; he is sorry that he got caught.”

Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Columbian Metro Editor