Update: Oct. 28, Jennifer Azure responded to my telephone call with a text message shortly after I called her. Unfortunately, it became lost in junk text messages that are identified by a phone number. The Observer regrets the error and has updated this article to include her comment.
Attorneys in the Tri-Cities are crying foul, saying one of their own may have abused her authority to apply for an open judge seat in Benton County.
According to the attorneys, the open seat on Benton County District Court should’ve been publicized in a Benton Franklin Bar Association newsletter, which they say is the routine way to advertise the opening.
Instead, the position never showed up, leaving the legal community in the dark and leading only two candidates to apply.
One of those candidates was the newsletter’s manager, Jennifer Azure. The other was local defense attorney Shelley Ajax.
The last open judge’s seat had 12 applicants after it was advertised in the newsletter, the attorneys said. Azure and Ajax applied to that position too and weren’t selected, though Azure finished higher on the list than Ajax.
Azure made the top three list along with James Bell and Diana Ruff. Bell was appointed and Ruff was later chosen to be a Benton Franklin Superior Court Commissioner.
The retiring judge is Katy Butler, who occupies Position 5 on the Benton court. The position pays about $190,000 a year.
Judges are elected in Washington, except when one leaves before their term is up. At the district court level, county commissioners appoint a judge to an open position, who fills the spot until the next election.
The Observer obtained two of the bar association newsletters that were sent during the application period for Position 5, Sept. 29 to October 12. One noted a job opening in Yakima and an opening for a magistrate judge for U.S.District Court, Eastern District of Washington. No mention was made of the opening in Benton County.
The Observer reached out to Azure for a comment. She wrote, “I’ve applied for the upcoming Benton County District Court vacancy due to Judge Butler’s retirement. I remain optimistic that I’ll receive an interview.”
Tri-City attorney Sheri Oertel said Azure’s applying to the position left out of the newsletter makes it look like she had inside information and abused it to keep other lawyers from applying for the position.
“If that is what happened, that is not the type of attorney I want in a robe on the bench!” Oertel told the Observer.
Two local attorneys, Talesha Sams and Tyler Everitt, said that they depended on the bar association newsletter to alert them to openings. Both said they would have applied had they known there was an opening.
Azure calls into Oct. 19 Commission Meeting
Guest Observer Mike Lowery first keyed on the court appointment issue after he watched the Oct. 19 Benton County Commission meeting. Lowery said it was odd that one of the applicants, Azure, called to comment on the selection process.
The commission makes audio recordings of their meetings available to the public.
“Can I address the board?” [pause, then Small says “yes”] Azure continues… “[Shelley Ajax] was not a new applicant. She had applied previously and was not in the top three that was interviewed, so I’m wondering, if, I have no problem going through interviews, but just to clarify the record.”
Ajax had been described as a new candidate earlier.
Small responded, “I appreciate that and, just as an aside, other than normal in regards of us actually addressing your comments. You’ve been a great individual for many years when I first time made the exception. So, thank you for that clarification, we are looking forward to hearing from all the candidates, on November 2.”
County Commissioner Shon Small calls complaints “garbage”
In a telephone conversation the Observer had with Small he described the complaints about the bar newsletter as “garbage.” He said that he would call Azure and inform her about them.
Small said that if he had known that Ajax had applied before, he would not have agreed to interview her. He would have gone back to the “list.”
In a call the next day, Small defended Azure, “It is not her job to tell other people how to find a job.”
He also described the list further. He said that he believed that if a vacancy occurred within a year of an application and interview process for another vacancy, the commission should go back to the list of top candidates for the previous vacancy unless there were new applicants. Azure was the only person left on that list.
He said that the complaints about the bar newsletter were “offensive and not going anywhere.” He added, “Azure has a high reputation among the legal community.”
Benton Commission resolution on filling non-partisan positions
On April 20, 2021, the three commissioners signed resolution 2021-334, “Benton County Recruitment and Selection Process for Nonpartisan Elective Office Vacancies.”
The policy states:
“It is the responsibility of the Human Resources Department to maintain this policy and ensure that the procedures set forth in this policy are followed in a consistent manner.”
“It is the policy of Benton County to recruit and select the most qualified person for each vacant nonpartisan elective office of the County.”
“In order to attract an adequate number of candidates for a vacant nonpartisan elective office, the Human Resources Department will post a vacancy announcement and publicize the vacancy on the Benton County website and anywhere else deemed appropriate.”
The county administrator working with the Human Resources Department picks three from among the applicants.
“The appointment may follow interviews of the three (3) candidates during a regular or special board meeting….”
(Disclosure: The Observer is a member of the board of the National Women’s Political Caucus – WA which donated $450 to Ajax’s 2020 campaign for a seat on the Benton Franklin Counties Superior Court and has supported her for other judicial appointments.)