Grays Harbor County Prosecutor Katie Svoboda will scratch off another “first” for Grays Harbor County when she takes her position as Superior Court Judge Jan. 11.
“After serving as the first female prosecuting attorney I am the first woman to be an elected judge in the county,” she said. “The quality of a person’s work has nothing to do with their sex, so I hope that the significance is that it is one less barrier for the women that come after me.”
She reflected on the women who came before her that helped pave the way.
“Gladys Phillips is certainly a local legend for being a smart and tenacious lawyer,” said Svoboda. “I often think of Susan Dubuisson, who served the county as a deputy prosecutor and is now a district court judge in Thurston County. There are also a number of local women who have served as court commissioners and municipal court judges, like Susan Solan and Jean Cotton. Without their hard work and service, my career path would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.”
Svoboda was born at Grays Harbor Community Hospital and spent the first few years of her life living in “a little house at the cemetery,” a house on Roosevelt at Fern Hill Cemetery in Aberdeen, where her dad worked. The family soon moved to Hoquiam, and she graduated Hoquiam High School in 1993.
A legal career was something she’d “thought about as a kid,” she said. “I think that every kid that is a bit of an arguer gets told, ‘you should be a lawyer.’”
While doing her undergraduate work at Washington State University and deciding a career path, she worked summers at Timberland Bank. After graduation, she continued on at the bank full time, working as a mortgage underwriter. She loved the bank, and the people she worked with, “but the work was not that interesting to me.”
She went to Gonzaga Law School at the age of 25 and “then kind of fell into an internship at the (Spokane County) prosecutor’s office,” and that was that, career path found.
Just a few months after passing the bar, she landed a gig with the Grays Harbor County Prosecutor’s Office.
“This was my first job out of law school,” said Svoboda. “I passed the bar and got licensed in November 2003 and then a job at the prosecutor’s office was posted within two weeks of being licensed.” She started in February 2004.
A decade later, she successfully ran for the position of prosecutor. Last year, when Superior Court Judge Stephen Brown announced his impending retirement, Svoboda decided it was time to take to the bench. In Washington, Superior Court judges are elected. She ran unopposed, and will take the bench Jan. 11.
Asked on the day of his retirement party what he thought of Svoboda taking his spot on the bench, Brown said, “I think it’s outstanding. She’s going to be a great judge. She is very intelligent and a good lawyer and has a good personality in dealing with people.”
As Svoboda leaves her office, current chief civil deputy Norma Tillotson will serve as interim prosecutor. She’s worked closely with Svoboda since 2014.
“I will tell you this, she is fabulous,” said Tillotson. “She is one of the smartest people I have ever met. I guess the thing that really impresses me, and what I really aspire to, is her even handedness, and grace under pressure.”
Svoboda is confident her office is in good shape to handle the transition, as is Tillotson. “I think she has done a fantastic job as prosecutor and has really left the office in a great place for me to take over,” said Tillotson.
Svoboda will be serving on the bench with two current Superior Court judges, David Mistachkin and David Edwards, both of whom she has argued before on many occasions.
“I am looking forward to the opportunity to work with her,” said Mistachkin. “I believe that she will be an asset to the bench and that together we will be able to continue efforts to improve court operations and continue to promote fair and efficient resolution of court matters.”
Edwards said, “I have every confidence Katie is going to be an outstanding Superior Court Judge. She has all the qualities required of someone to fill that position and to do it well.”
Edwards publicly criticized Svoboda in 2016 about case backlogs and plea deals, going so far as to call for her resignation, but that’s all water under the bridge.
“The difference that I had with Katie a few years ago had nothing to do with her skills or her ability to be a prosecutor, or a judge, and those differences are far behind us now,” said Edwards. “Katie and I have a close relationship now and I’m looking forward to her coming up to the bench. She is our first female Superior Court judge and everybody is excited about that.”
Svoboda said of the public disagreement, “So many people bring that up,” and that the legal arena is adversarial by nature, but, “That stuff doesn’t turn into the lifetime grudges that people might expect.” She noted that Edwards “was the first to encourage me to run and offer support.”
Edwards added that Svoboda’s arrival could add some stability in Superior Court. Svoboda said in her time as prosecutor, four judges have retired, Brown being the fourth.
“Katie and Judge Mistachkin are of similar age, which means they are a lot younger than me, and I think that is going to give us some stability,” said Edwards. “I’m hopeful both of them remain on the bench for many years, and I think right now the Grays Harbor Superior Court is pretty solid.”
As prosecutor, Svoboda’s had more than her share of memorable cases, some for reasons that would likely churn the stomach of many of us.
“There are definitely cases that stand out out, for good and bad reasons,” she said. She takes it in stride. “My aim, I guess, is to know I’m going to make mistakes. I just try to make new and interesting mistakes, and learn, and not repeat what I have done in the past.”
Homicide cases, thankfully pretty rare in Grays Harbor County, always stand out. And aside from maybe two homicide cases since taking office, Svoboda has been to the scene of every one.
“I think about the first one I went to, and it was like walking into mom’s house, your best friend’s house. Very clean, fresh laundry on the table, and then this violent scene,” she said. “They’re just living their everyday lives and then something horrible happens.”
One scene she did not attend personally, and a case that stands out not just to her, but all who were involved, was the April 2013 murder of a newborn girl in Ocean Shores.
“That was really tough for me, and the law enforcement who worked that case,” she said. The infant’s father, Patrick Parnel of Humptulips, then 23, was found guilty of second degree murder in November 2014 and sentenced to 40 years in the death of the newborn. The infant’s mother pleaded guilty to abandonment.
As for leaving her job as prosecutor, “It’s bittersweet,” said Svoboda. “But I am very excited about this new opportunity, so I feel for me the timing was right. I feel like I practiced long enough to have the expertise to offer to the bench. But I love being the prosecutor.”
Some of that expertise was garnered from local peers. She said Jerry Fuller, who was the county’s chief criminal prosecutor when she started, “had a lot of impact on who I am as an attorney.” Her husband, Kraig Newman, was senior deputy prosecutor and trained her when she came into the prosecutor’s office, “so I definitely have stolen all his best material, and he will tell you that.”
Judges too have impacted her life and career. “Judge (David) Foscue was amazing,” she said. “So much of what I think a good judge should be came from him.” She said she has “a ton of respect for Judge Brown,” and “I am sad I won’t get a chance to work with him on the bench.” Judge Thomas Copland was a big influence, and “Edwards does a great job as the presiding judge.”
Svoboda was just finishing up a five-week online class with the National Judicial College last week, to help her further prepare. Her case load initially will be mixed, as the court adjusts so there will be no potential conflict with cases currently open in the prosecutor’s office.
The prosecutor’s office is in capable hands, she said, with a solid staff of deputy prosecutors and Tillotson at the helm in the interim.
“I have Jason Walker, chief criminal deputy, and Norma’s expertise on the civil side of the office, which many people don’t understand the importance of,” she said. “Jason has a great handle on the criminal side, and between the two chiefs the office can weather the transition.”
Tillotson will run the prosecutor’s office as Grays Harbor County Democrats gather a list of three potential replacement candidates. The Board of County Commissioners will select a prosecutor from that list, likely in February, who will serve until the next genereal election, when one will be elected.