Laura Inveen, a former public defender and civil litigator, is the longest-serving female Superior Court judge — and the third longest-serving overall — still hearing cases in the state, with 27 years on the King County bench.

Tim Bradshaw spent 20 years prosecuting murderers, rapists and arsonists for King County before he donned the black robe, winning a contentious election in 2008, then running unopposed in 2012 and 2016.

Inveen and Bradshaw are both leaving the court Aug. 30, and their replacements will become the 16th and 17th King County Superior Court judges to be appointed since the beginning of 2018 by Gov. Jay Inslee. Over his two terms in office, Inslee has appointed 72 Superior Court judges statewide — one-and-a-half times the number of all judges who were appointed by previous governors and remain on the bench.

Sixty percent of King County’s 53 Superior Court judges have six years of experience or less, and 43% have served for four years or less, representing a huge turnover that’s mirrored statewide as graying baby boomers retire from the bench. Five King County Superior Court judges retired and three others were elevated to the state Court of Appeals last year, and six more — not counting Inveen and Bradshaw — have left the court this year.

The wave of departures has forced the court to seek ways to bring new judges up to speed quickly so they can help handle the 65,000 trials and hearings across all case types — felonies, divorces, protection orders and a slew of others — that are heard each year.

“It takes four to six years for a judge to really get their sea legs,” said King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers. “The main thing we tell the governor is we need people with trial experience. With so many new judges, we need to start people immediately trying cases.”

While most attorneys specialize in specific practice areas, Superior Court judges are the justice system’s last generalists, Rogers said.

“You have to be competent in everything,” he said. “There’s no substitute for experience.”

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Under Judge Dean Lum, a new education program — on top of annual statewide judicial colleges and conferences — has been introduced in King County, with senior judges offering monthly workshops and retired judges teaching classes on topics like judicial decision-making and criminal law.

The court also launched a mentorship program, and created a tracking system to ensure new judges rotate through different departments and get experience in criminal, civil, juvenile and family law in their first six years on the bench.

“The problem right now is we’re kind of running out of expertise with the old sages, so Judge Rogers has been bringing in retired judges to mentor the new judges,” said Inveen, who is paired with Judge Mafé Rajul, who was appointed last year. “If a judge is hit with something that’s time-sensitive in the middle of trial and needs advice, there’s a court-wide agreement that we’ll come off the bench and help that person.”

“We don’t take it lightly”

Judges are elected, running for office every four years. In King County, seven Superior Court judges were elected in 2016 and 2017, filling vacancies left by judges who retired at the end of their terms.

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When a judge leaves before his or her term expires, the governor appoints a new judge to serve out the remaining time. The appointees typically run in the next election, though if their candidacy is unopposed, they won’t appear on the ballot.

Since Inslee became governor in 2013, he’s made 94 judicial appointments across the state, a number that includes appointments to the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, said Tip Wonhoff, the governor’s deputy general counsel.

“We don’t take it lightly. We know the judges we appoint now will be serving their communities long after this administration ends,” Wonhoff said, noting Inslee recently filled a vacancy left by a retiring judge who was appointed by former Gov. John Spellman in 1985. “There are Inslee judicial appointees who conceivably could still be on the bench in 2040 and beyond.”

While courts across the state are experiencing what Wonhoff has heard referred to as “the silver tsunami” of retiring judges, the situation is especially acute in King County, home to the largest trial court in the state, he said.

When a judge writes the governor to announce he or she plans to leave before their term is up, a call for applications goes out. Applicants are interviewed by General Counsel Kathryn Leathers and Wonhoff, who get input from minority bar associations as well as current judges in that jurisdiction before picking a finalist. Then Inslee makes the final call.

Because of King County’s high turnover, Wonhoff said his office began using a “rolling applicant pool,” placing candidates who have gone through the interview process into a pool instead of requiring them to apply each time there’s a vacancy.

A grueling job

When Inveen was appointed to the King County Superior Court in 1992, 25% of the judges were women. Now, women hold nearly 55% of the 53 seats.

“I was very fortunate. A lot of women had paved the way before I got here,” said Inveen, 63, who was pregnant with both her sons — now adults — while on the bench.

“I love, love, love my job, but it’s not a flexible job. The time is very constrained,” she said.

When in trial, judges are in the courtroom for the bulk of their work days, presiding over jury selection, fielding objections and ensuring rules of evidence are followed. They spend their evenings reading court filings that can easily swell to hundreds of pages. Fridays are reserved for hearing civil motions and sentencing criminal defendants.

Judges also take turns on “warrant duty,” when they are frequently called in the middle of the night to sign search warrants for police detectives.

Then there are the meetings and committee obligations to oversee the administration of the court, working on everything from budgets and personnel issues to ensuring enough jurors are summoned for trials.

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Cases are randomly assigned to judges, said Inveen, who is assigned to the civil calendar but most recently presided over a first-degree assault trial.

“You just never know what you’re going to see. Our decisions have such dramatic effects on people’s lives, whether it’s their personal liberty, their economic viability or their family,” she said, seated in her chambers on the eighth floor of the King County courthouse. “You have to think about that every day, the effect you’re having on someone.”

Married to her attorney-husband for 40 years, Inveen wants to spend more of her time traveling and training for triathlons. After leaving the bench, she also plans to work part-time for Hilyer Dispute Resolution, a private arbitration and mediation firm founded by a retired King County judge.

While becoming a private judge in the world of arbitration and mediation is a frequent path for those leaving the bench, Bradshaw, 56, has decided on a very different third act for his legal career.

At the urging of attorney Steve Fogg, a former trial partner in the prosecutor’s cold-case unit, Bradshaw is returning to trial work, this time handling complex civil cases for Seattle law firm Corr Cronin.

“[Bradshaw’s] very creative and very dynamic,” said Fogg, a senior partner at the firm. “He’s almost a generational talent and I think the highest and best use of his skills is trying cases for clients.”

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In his chambers a floor below Inveen’s, Bradshaw tossed a baseball the color of old grass stains between his hands as he reflected on his work in the prosecutor’s office and his last 10 1/2 years on the bench.

“I’ve had my fill of crime … but I don’t think I’ve ever been cured of the trial bug,” said Bradshaw, who is married with a 14-year-old son. “I’ve enjoyed being a judge but to be a good judge is not to be an advocate, and that’s the part of the law that I’ve missed.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Inveen plans to work for Judicial Dispute Resolution when she retires from the bench. The firm she plans to work for is Hilyer Dispute Resolution. Inveen is 63, not 62.