The process behind replacing Clallam’s prosecutor
The manner in which Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly successor is chosen is spelled out in the Washington state constitution, which provides specific instructions for replacing partisan legislators and those holding partisan county offices. Clallam County only has two categories of partisan officeholders: the county commissioners and the prosecuting attorney.
The constitution puts the power to replace Kelly into the hands of the Clallam County Republican Party.
Under the law, the person appointed to replace Kelly must be from Clallam County and must be a Republican, like Kelly.
The central committee of the Clallam County Republican Party will provide the county commissioners with three names of replacement candidates.
Dick Pilling, chairman of the Clallam Republican Party, said he’s sending a letter to Derek Medina, president of the Clallam County Bar Association, soliciting resumes of interested attorneys. “We intend to interview the candidates and narrow it down to three to present to the commissioners,” Pilling said.
He said he hopes that can be completed by Dec. 16.
The commissioners have 60 days following Kelly’s Dec. 31 departure to choose one of those three candidates.
If they fail to do so, the decision is left up to the governor, who has another 30 days to choose one of the three candidates put forth by the Republican central committee.
There is one exception: The commissioners also may appoint a deputy or assistant in the prosecutor’s office as an “acting official to perform all necessary duties to continue normal office procedures.”
State statute provides that, “The acting official will serve until a successor is either elected or appointed as required by law.”
County Commissioner Jim McEntire said he anticipates the commissioners will interview the candidates and will also provide for public input into the choice.
After 11 years in office, Deborah Kelly is stepping down as Clallam County’s Prosecuting Attorney.
In her Nov. 15 letter of resignation, Kelly, 61, said she will leave office on Dec. 31, leaving one year in her current four-year term.
She said personal matters have for the past year “competed for my focus on the job and community.”
Kelly said, “to be quite honest, I would have left last year except for the Stenson case.”
Kelly recently successfully prosecuted Darold Stenson for the 1993 double murder of his wife, Denise, and Frank Hoerner.
In May 2012, the Washington Supreme Court overturned Stenson’s 1994 conviction, sending it back to Clallam County for a new trial.
Kelly said she decided to “stick around” for the trial because of her long history with the case. “I was in the office when the case charges were filed back in 1993, but I wasn’t in the office when it went to trial. But I knew a lot about the case.”
“I had touched it many times in the ensuing years. Nobody else in the office had, so I started off with the background and familiarity that other people didn’t have.”
Kelly added that handing the case to another prosecutor would have further strained the limited resources of her office.
Kelly called her time in office “an incredibly enriching experience,” despite the difficulties. She said she’s enjoyed most “the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with. That encompasses law enforcement, certainly the people in this office and members of the community. The jurors.”
“It’s been rewarding to try to bring justice to people.”
Kelly said the office has changed since she first went to work there as a young prosecutor in the early 1980s.
At some point bulletproof glass was installed in the office entry way.
It’s almost an annoyance, a nuisance,” she said. “It cuts you off.”
“Over the years I’ve had three or four threats. Witnesses are often concerned about retaliation. For most people, it isn’t something to be concerned about — or for prosecutors either. Only once, maybe, have I thought, ‘This one may be real.’
But, she added, the nation has trended toward greater violence. That’s why security consultants now recommend the new measures, she said.
She said the decline in civility also has affected the way her office interacts with the community. The relationship “has deteriorated,” she said. “I think it’s true of prosecutors’ offices across the country.”
Kelly said when she started as a deputy prosecutor in 1980, “you’d go into the court and fight hammer and tong, and then at the end of the day you’d go out with the opposing counsel and maybe have a drink together. Or you’d play baseball together.”
These days the two sides are more combative. “It’s a mirror of what you see across the country,” she said.
“I’ve made some efforts (to bridge the divide), but I haven’t been successful. The worst part is the personalization of the roles and the demonization of the other side.”
Law and justice
Kelly also opined on the possibility of a Clallam Law and Justice Tax, a recurring topic of discussion as her office turns away more and more cases due to a lack of funding. She said as a private citizen she would support the implementation of a tax.
But, she added, “it would only be a temporary fix.”
“We have some tough decisions to make as citizens. The (county) commissioners have tough choices to make, the city councils have tough choices to make.”
In the end, it’s possible “criminal justice and the courts will eat up every dime the local community has.”
She said taxpayers are willing to pay to see justice done. “In the purest sense, that may be the way people are supposed to think. But, she added, as a private citizen, we have to think, ‘We need roads, too. We need health care.’”
“There is no easy answer.”
Changes are required, she said. “Right now things are out of balance.”
“I don’t think this office has sufficient resources to do what needs to be done. I think we’ve operated on insufficient resources for a long time. But you play the hand you’re dealt. That’s the tough choice I’ve had to make and every public official has had to make.”
“I’ve made them the best I can. Some people will disagree, but that’s true of all public officials.”
Reach Mark Couhig at email@example.com.