It’s just another week in the professional life of Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge Mark McCauley — arraignments, sentencing hearings and a three-day trial. At the end of the day Friday he will hang up his robe for good and will be officially retired after nearly 25 years on the bench.
McCauley, who is 64, said he had planned to retire at 65, but he and his wife Weedy put their home up for sale and it sold sooner than expected. “We’re moving to our summer home on Hood Canal,” he said. “It’s beautiful up there.”
McCauley was born and raised in Aberdeen. After high school he went to Washington State University and then to Willamette Law School in Salem.
“I clerked for the court of appeals in Tacoma my first year out of school, then worked for a law firm that had offices in Hoquiam and Seattle.” McCauley decided early on that he wanted to be a judge, so when Grays Harbor County Superior Court added a third judge, he leapt at the opportunity.
“When I was an attorney they created a third position here back in 1993, and I just felt it was a good fit,” said McCauley. “I had two girls growing up fast, and the judge position gave me a much more stable work life compared to private practice law; it gave me a better balance of work and family life.”
In nearly a quarter century as a Superior Court judge, McCauley has presided over hundreds of cases. One fairly early on in his tenure, however, still stands out. “That terrible triple homicide case, I had not the son, but the friend, in my court.”
In 1995, Nicholaus J. McDonald. and his friend Brian Bassett murdered Bassett’s parents and 5-year-old brother in the family home in McCleary. Bassett’s parents were both shot, and the 5-year-old was drowned in the bathtub. The two fled toward California, but in Grants Pass, Ore., McDonald walked into a police station and confessed to his part in the murders. He was 17 at the time, Bassett only 16.
The cases were separated and McDonald stood trial in McCauley’s court. “That was a tough case to sit on, especially when it involved a 5-year-old,” said McCauley. “It was the mid-90s and I hadn’t been on the bench too long.”
McDonald was eventually convicted in the deaths of the child and Bassett’s mother, but acquitted in the murder of the father. His original sentence was just less than 65 years.
During that trial, and others, the young judge relied heavily on his more experienced peers for advice and guidance.
“I was on the bench a long time with Judge David Foscue and Gordon Godfrey; we had a tight relationship for a number of years. I am now very close to Judge Edwards, who has been here for nine or 10 years,” said McCauley. “Early on I relied heavily on the experience of the older judges. When I was dealing with difficult, challenging or confusing issues I was encouraged to talk to the other judges. It was very helpful, especially when I was first starting.”
As his retirement gets closer, McCauley reflected on some of the toughest types of cases he’s presided over.
“Sad cases, like the recent cases that couple drug abuse and mental health issues,” he said. “Those are tough cases, but a lot of times the family law cases are tough because we are trying to do right by the children. Dependency cases, deciding what’s appropriate for placement of the child.”
The cases of drug abuse coupled with mental health issues are difficult, said McCauley.
“I think it comes down to a lack of resources to have the sort of programs to find people early in their addiction and get them good treatment right away,” he said. “Early intervention. We are going to get a drug court here (Judge Stephen Brown will preside), and I’m hoping it will help, but it’s going to be a small percentage of drug offenders that we can get in to drug court.”
With just short of a quarter century, McCauley has seen more than a fair share of repeat offenders. Limitations on sentencing set by the state can make it difficult to dissuade offenders from a life of crime, he said.
“In criminal law we are dealing with sentencing guidelines we go by,” said McCauley. “It is kind of decided to a great extent before it gets to us.”
Sentences are based on an offender score, which is decided by criminal history, severity of the crime and other factors. The score determines the sentence.
“A lot of times we don’t have a whole lot of discretion,” said McCauley. “We may be dealing with a Class C felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years, but I can’t just go and give the 10 years, I have to sentence them within the sentencing range.”
Part of being a good judge is maintaining a calm demeanor in the face of some truly horrific cases, said McCauley.
“I think I’m generally pretty calm and fairly patient with the litigants, but I can have those days, depending on the circumstances, where I am upset by the nature of the case, or with pro se litigants (those who choose to serve as their own attorney) who don’t know the rules of the court,” he said. “Overall, most days I think I’m relatively calm, and not quite as colorful as Godfrey was. People have asked me through the years, why don’t you say things the way Godfrey did? and I tell them that was his style. Everybody has their own style.”
When asked if seeing a steady stream of violent offenders, serious drug addiction, domestic violence victims, sex offenses and child welfare cases come through his courtroom for 25 years had impacted his overall view of the world, McCauley responded, “My wife tells me that some times!”
He continued, “When you do this for years you do see a good number of cases, criminal and domestic, where people are really struggling. You have to understand you’re dealing with struggling people, people with drug problems, family problems, mental health problems — sometimes it can get overwhelming.”
So how did McCauley keep his outlook on life positive?
“I have two kids who grew up in this community and I always enjoyed going to their sport and school events, and going to community events. We have a great community with a lot of great, caring people, and it makes you realize that things are not so bad in the world. We have a lot of tremendous citizens in this county.”