Two local attorneys are running for Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge, Position 1, as current Judge John Lohrmann announced his retirement at the end of his term.
Michael S. “Mike” Mitchell, 66, and Brandon Johnson, 45, will face off. Both have served as judge pro tem for Walla Walla County Superior Court, with Mitchell since 2013 and Johnson since 2016.
Additionally, both candidates have experience handling various court cases and responsibilities, as well as their own law practices.
But, there are some differences between them, perhaps an obvious one being length of experience: Mitchell has about 40 years and Johnson, about 20.
Too many plea bargains?One of the big concerns raised by residents recently has been plea bargains given to suspects in court rather than taking cases to trial.
Both weighed in on the practice, but ultimately said the concerns would be addressed better by the prosecutor, who could use plea bargains at his or her discretion.
Both noted without the deals, the judicial system would become bogged down, not allowing for speedy trials as mandated by law.
“It’s a necessary part of the system,” Johnson said. “There’s no way for the court to try every case.”
He added sometimes it makes sense from both the defense and plaintiff’s point of view, as both sides would know in the deal what to expect. He also said as a judge, it could seem as overstepping to deny a plea bargain because it is a tool prosecution uses at its discretion within the law.
Mitchell echoed him.
“As a judge, you don’t know all of the case,” he said, regarding how strong either side’s case might be.
Mitchell mentioned he’s been both a defense and prosecuting attorney, so has seen both sides of a case. As a defense attorney, he said he might have holes in his case, so would try to get a better deal, and as a prosecutor, was never really sure how a case would end if left to a jury trial.
“As a judge, we can scrutinize those (deals) and potentially reject them if they’re not in the eyes of justice,” he said.
A bit of backgroundMitchell, who carries on a long family tradition in law, graduated from Walla Walla High School in 1971, and earned his bachelor’s from Washington State University and law degree from Willamette University.
He became a deputy prosecuting attorney for Walla Walla County in 1978. In 1981 he joined the firm of Roach, Votendahl & Monahan, eventually becoming a partner.
Since 1989, he has been a sole practitioner and for the last 15 years he has been a mediator and arbitrator.
His practice has covered prosecuting and defending criminal cases, family, personal injury, litigation, forming businesses, planning estates and others.
“I’ve kind of done everything in this practice,” he said.
In 2013, he was appointed by the Superior Court Judges to serve as a Walla Walla County Superior Court commissioner. He also serves in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tem for Superior Court.
Mitchell said the position allows for the same decision-making as an elected judge.
“I’ve had the opportunity to sort of understand what it’s like,” he said. “It’s not going to be something totally new.”
Johnson was born in Arizona, grew up in Walla Walla, received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Washington State University and earned his juris doctorate from Gonzaga University in 2000.
After law school, Johnson served as a law clerk to Judge Dennis Sweeney, now retired, at the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division III.
Johnson practiced private law from 2002 to 2014, including four years at a practice in Kennewick.
He took a brief hiatus in 2013 to take care of his wife, Sarah, as she battled leukemia and went through treatment in Seattle.
“It was one of those game-changers,” he said.
Johnson returned to Walla Walla in 2015, but didn’t start his own solo practice for 18 months due to his wife’s illness, he said.
He’s served as a judge pro tem for Walla Walla County Superior Court since 2016. He also once served as an arbitrator for Benton and Franklin counties.
“I think I have the breadth of experience for this position,” he said of running.
Why run for judge?Mitchell said it’s time to give back.
“I’ve got quite a bit of experience,” he said. “This would be a way to pay back the citizens of Walla Walla County.”
Johnson, too, said he believes it’s time.
“I feel like I’m at the age and stage of life to transition back into public service,” he said.
However, Johnson said he started his law career with that in mind.
“I went into law school because I wanted to help people,” he said.