Nearly 35 years ago, Carrie Runge was a young law school graduate in need of a job when she first walked into the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick.
The county’s elected prosecutor gave her a chance, hiring her to handle civil work, later moving Runge into the office’s criminal division. She eventually was promoted to chief deputy, a position she held for 10 years.
Then, in January 2004, Runge was given another shot at advancement when Washington’s governor appointed her to a newly created sixth seat on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench. The court now has seven judges and three court commissioners.
Over the years she has seen the wide-reaching impact a crime can have on all those involved, and witnessed drug addicts change their lives through intense treatment and reunite with loved ones.
So as the time neared to leave the justice center that has been her work home since 1986, Judge Runge decided it was the perfect opportunity to help another lawyer take that next career step — just like she got all those years ago.
Runge, who is about to turn 62, will retire at the end of July.
She will have served 17 years on the bicounty court when she permanently hangs up her black robe.
Her departure — half a year into a 4-year term — means her replacement will be selected by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Eight Tri-Cities attorneys have applied for the soon-to-be vacancy. Interviews were conducted earlier this month, and Inslee’s spokesman says the office hopes to announce the appointment by the first part of July.
Meanwhile, Court Commissioner Pamela Peterson retires June 30. The judges have appointed Arthur “Art” D. Klym, a Tri-Cities lawyer who has practiced for nearly 44 years
Enjoy ‘simple things’
Runge recently told the Tri-City Herald that it’s been challenging to serve as a judge during the coronavirus pandemic because initially the courts were for the most part shut down, and then remote hearings were implemented to protect everyone.
Holding court has become impersonal, and led Runge to wonder how effective she is as a judge when she’s appearing to the person via a computer. She compared the job now to being in an air traffic control tower.
The world being locked down for more than a year also helped Runge to understand her priorities personally, and who and what she wants to focus her time on.
“Life is short. The days are long but they go fast, and you don’t know the number of your days,” said Runge. “I see a lot of people have significant illnesses or pass away at a young age, so I want out while I’m young and healthy and can enjoy it.”
Her husband, Rick Runge, is a retired detective from the Kennewick Police Department. He volunteered to return to work in 2020 while the department was overwhelmed during the early days of the pandemic and dealing with limited staffing and resources.
Now that the two finally will have free time together, they hope to take their trailer out camping and explore the United States, fly to “other places” and just spend more time with their dogs and family.
“I want to stay active, I want to hike more places … and maybe start a garden to commune with flowers,” said Carrie Runge, who also is an avid Crossfitter. “Just the simple things.”
2nd female judge
A Tacoma native, Runge did her undergrad work in psychology at University of Washington in Seattle and law school at Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound, which is now Seattle University.
She lived at her family home to help with the finances, but after graduation applied to a few jobs around the state, including in the Benton County Prosecutor’s Office.
Runge interviewed to be a civil lawyer and started in September 1989. She moved to the criminal division the following year — first in juvenile court, then adult court — and became Prosecutor Andy Miller’s chief deputy in late 1993.
Then, when a newly created judicial position opened in Superior Court in late 2003, Runge applied and was appointed by then-Gov. Gary Locke. She became the court’s second female judge, after Judge Carolyn A. Brown.
Runge told the Herald that during each election season over the ensuing years, she was “super fortunate” that she never had to run a campaign because no one filed to challenge her. She said she did not have any political clout and recognizes it costs a lot of money to run a campaign.
Now it’s important to her that she leave before her term is done, to give someone else a chance at appointment.
“From my perspective, I think maybe the appointment process might put somebody in the position that wouldn’t necessarily have the money or the tendency to want to campaign from the get-go, so it might be a more informed decision,” said Runge.
“I completely understand the election process and, those campaigning, it’s up to them to get out and educate the public,” she added. “But I think a lot of people tend to not necessarily pay a lot of attention to judicial campaigns.”
Inslee will look at each applicant’s background and listen to them during the interview process, as well as listen to other judges and lawyers, she said.
The candidates to replace Runge are: Shelley Ajax; Julie Long; Danielle Purcell; Diana Ruff; Talesha Sams; Jeffrey Sperline; Jacqueline Stam; and Alan Tindell.
A local legal poll showed fellow lawyers overwhelmingly selected Stam as their “overall choice” to be the next judge, based on legal ability, judicial temperament and relevant legal experience.
In the poll conducted by the Benton & Franklin Counties Bar Association, Stam — currently one of Superior Court’s three appointed court commissioners — received 38 votes. Ruff came in second with 15 votes, followed by eight each for Ajax and Long.
Reflecting on the past 35 years, Runge said she is thankful she has the ability to not dwell on most cases.
She said when forced to really think about them, the prosecution of Kevin Hilton for the 2002 murder of landlords Josephine and Larry Ulrich and the trial of Jordan E. Castillo for the 2004 slaying of beloved Benton City teacher and coach Bob Mars both stick out in her mind.
Runge, who was second chair in prosecuting Hilton, said that double-murder case came to mind because of the “excellent police work” and the relationship she developed with the Ulrich family.
As for Castillo, it was one of the first trials she presided over as a judge and said her heart went out to everyone involved in the case. From the defendant, who was just 14 when he helped stab Mars during a failed robbery attempt and ended up with a 30-year sentence, she said, to the victim’s family whose lives were totally upended with his death.
“What I came to realize is any case has the ability to impact you, and I just feel for not only the survivors but also for those that end up in trouble,” said Runge. “I think that ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’ That’s truly how I feel.”
Miller described his former employee as having a wonderful work ethic, a person who did not change one bit after joining the Superior Court bench.
“I think Benton and Franklin counties are going to miss her terribly, but she deserves her retirement because she put her heart and soul into the job,” said Miller.
He recounted some major cases they co-chaired as prosecutors, saying Runge’s questioning of a defense witness in the 1995 trial of Dale Norwick for plotting to kill two men over insurance money was “the best lawyering” he has ever seen.
“As prosecutor she showed the same traits that later made her an outstanding judge,” Miller told the Herald. “She was always fair, always presumed a suspect was innocent until she saw enough evidence that proved the suspect was guilty, always strived for the just result, never about always asking for the longest sentences.”
Kind and humble
Miller said Runge brought humanity into the criminal justice system and made him a better lawyer and a better person.
There were times in the middle of stressful jury trials that Miller said he was tempted to let passion take over. But Runge always was “a calming influence, reminding me of the big picture.”
On the bench, Runge commands respect in the courtroom, but she returns the respect to every person who comes before her and makes sure they feel they are heard, he added.
Rick Runge expanded on Miller’s comments, saying one of the things he loves about his wife is that she is the most kind, humble person he knows.
“She will run into guys out of work — defense attorneys, prosecutors — and they will say, ‘Hello, judge,’” said Rick Runge. His wife will reply with, “’No, my name is Carrie, unless I’m on the bench.’ She never put herself above anybody.”
At home, the couple never talks about work unless it is funny and will make the other laugh, said Rick Runge. His wife told the detective early on that she wasn’t curious about his day because she understood his job and what he was experiencing from reading so many police reports in her own job, he explained.
Judge Runge said she feels very privileged and grateful for her career, believing that God looked out for her and put her in a place where she needed to be. She also credits Miller for giving her that first chance, mentoring her over the years and supporting her desire to become a judge.
Runge said as her final days on the bench draw closer, there is some emotion behind her decision to retire, and that surprises even her because she admits to not being an emotional person.
“They really are your friends, beyond being co-workers,” she said. “I’m certainly ready for a change, as far as what I’m doing, but I will miss the people very much.”