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Thursday, January 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Judge voided earlier vote

Seattle Times chief political reporter

WENATCHEE — The last time attorney Dale Foreman faced Judge John Bridges in an election case, Foreman lost.

But Foreman's OK with that. In fact, he couldn't be happier that it'll be Bridges presiding this morning in the Republican lawsuit challenging Christine Gregoire's election as governor.

The former state Republican chairman and state representative said it was one of the things he was hoping for when he suggested to Republicans and Dino Rossi that they file their lawsuit in Chelan County. This is territory friendly to the prospect of overturning an election.

About five years ago, Foreman was defending a politician in a contested-election case, trying to keep him in office. The defense failed and Wenatchee Mayor Gary Schoessler was removed from office.

Now Foreman's on the other side. He wants the governor's election nullified and Gregoire kicked from the governor's office.

Bridges' decision in the Schoessler case may not hold much legal currency in the fight between Gregoire and Rossi. It was about the candidate's residency, not about illegal votes, which are at the center of the governor's election case.

But the case does give a hint about how Bridges operates in the courtroom.

Chelan County Treasurer David Griffiths describes Bridges as a "blue-collar worker." That's among the highest compliments in a town built on the labors of farmers and fruit growers.

It means in this instance that Bridges is not likely to be flashy or highfalutin from the bench.

"He doesn't envision himself making new law," Griffiths said. "He won't piddle around with it. There won't be a huge debate and he'll come to a decision quickly."

That was evident in the Schoessler case.

The lawsuit over the governor's race, though, comes amid much greater public scrutiny.

Bridges will see far more than the small club of local attorneys he's used to in his courtroom. It won't even be his courtroom. He'll preside today in a county auditorium so there will be room for the 20 or more attorneys who plan on taking part. Another 15 or more will participate by teleconference.

It'll be a challenge for the court reporter to keep track of who's saying what during the hearing scheduled to take half the day, said Fona Sugg, the court's judicial assistant.

Already there are 245 separate filings in the case, Sugg said. Some run more than 30 pages.

"I can't tell you how many reams of paper I've gone through," she said.

Rossi and the Republican Party filed the suit Jan. 7. It names all 39 counties, their election directors, and Secretary of State Sam Reed. It also names two lawmakers who would sign the certificate of election, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, both Democrats, but Republicans have agreed to hold off on any claim against them because the constitution grants them immunity during the legislative session.

Rossi claims that illegal votes by felons and in the names of dead people, along with counting errors and yet-to-be-reconciled lists of voters, cast enough doubt that the election should be nullified.

Republican attorneys have said they filed in Chelan County to find a place where they could quickly get a trial and because they wanted to steer clear of larger counties where they allege most of the problems occurred. The case wound up with Bridges after parties in the lawsuit asked the first judge in the case to step aside. Chelan County has three Superior Court judges.

Bridges today will consider a Republican motion to expedite collection of evidence in the case. He'll also hear requests by several counties to be dismissed from the proceedings, and one from the Democratic Party to put off collection of evidence until other legal and jurisdictional questions are answered.

Bridges grew up in a Chelan County fruit orchard.

He went to Seattle Pacific University and then to Gonzaga Law School. He came back to town with a fresh law degree and was admitted to the state bar in 1976.

He was appointed to the bench by Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner in 1988.

Bridges would not agree to an interview.

People here say Bridges has never been very political. Shortly after they both started practicing law, Foreman said, he tried to recruit Bridges to join the Republican Party, but he never could.

Wenatchee is known as a conservative spot in the center of the state in part because of Foreman's prominence in the 1990s and the long political career of former House Speaker Clyde Ballard of East Wenatchee.

There's not a single Democrat in Chelan County government today. The last was beaten in the 2002 election.

But there's a strong current of a less-ideological Republicanism, too. Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed, who grew up here before moving west, said the conservative streak is tempered by people's reliance on government, from the irrigation made possible by Grand Coulee Dam to benefits of rural electrification programs.

The election case is the most high-profile legal battle here since a series of trials many people would like to forget: the infamous Wenatchee sex-ring cases.

Those trials stemmed from a police investigation of what was alleged to be rampant child sex abuse throughout town. There were high-profile trials and many convictions. But then came questions about the investigations and potential conflicts of interest.

Some of the accused were freed on appeals, and others got out of jail after pleading guilty to lesser charges. Their stories became something of a national crusade against what looked like a rush to judgment.

Bridges was the judge in some of those trials.

In one case, the defense accused him of a conflict of interest because of his relationship to a controversial police detective who led the investigation. But there was never an appeal heard on those grounds.

"An awful lot of innocent people went to jail as a result of those Wenatchee sex-ring trials, so from that standpoint he made some serious errors in judgment," said John Thamm.

Thamm, a courtroom artist who sat through some of the trials, was inspired by what he saw to paint a social-justice series for a gallery show.

"It was a mess from beginning to end," he said of the trials.

Bridges also heard some of Wenatchee's more notorious murder cases, which brought more unwanted attention to town.

But it's his work in the Schoessler case that will likely be the talk of the corps of attorneys here today.

The case was filed by two ministers in town, Sanford Brown and Kelvin Groseclose, who realized even before the 2000 mayoral election that Schoessler's legal residence was outside the city.

The two attorneys who helped them in the case now are involved in the election lawsuit — one representing the Democratic Party and the other Chopp and Owen.

"I think we lucked out when we got Bridges" on the Schoessler case, Brown said.

"I think he's more immune than judges sometimes are to political or community issues and was willing to make decisions based on law."

The case brought out hard feelings on both sides. Some residents complained to The Wenatchee World that ministers shouldn't be involving themselves so deeply in politics. This town, like any, has an old-boys network, and the case seemed to split it.

"It was very much a community tug of war," said Brown. He left Wenatchee in 2001 and is now executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

The trial took two days and involved a long list of witnesses.

Bridges was ready to rule within a beat of Foreman finishing his closing argument.

"We all thought he'd take the case under advisement and read all the case law and call us the next day," Foreman said.

But Bridges said from the bench, according to a court transcript, that he had taken a tablet and a half of notes during the trial, had reviewed them the night before and during that day's lunch, and had researched the law for the third time early that morning.

"It's times like this where I wish I wasn't a judge, but quite frankly, there's no way for me to avoid making a decision in this case," Bridges said. It was Dec. 28, 1999, and the judge said, "I think the electoral process ... deserves a decision today, and not next week in the new millennium."

His decision was firm and clear to "set aside" the election. "And the court doesn't do so with any glee whatsoever," Bridges said.

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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