After election to Court of Appeals, Judge Coburn ready to take passion for public service to next level

Linda Coburn momentarily drops the mask for a photo in her chambers at the Edmonds Municipal Court. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

You can take the judge out of Edmonds, but at least when it comes to Linda Coburn you can’t take Edmonds out of the judge.

Newly elected to fill the upcoming vacant seat on the Washington State Court of Appeals (held since 2008 by Judge J. Robert Leach), Edmonds Municipal Court Judge Linda Coburn is looking forward to the new challenges and bringing her perspective to bear as arguably the quintessential “Edmonds kind of judge” in a new setting.

“I love Edmonds!” Coburn exclaimed. “To me it’s a privilege not only to live here, but to have this amazing job in my hometown. I really wasn’t looking to leave.”

But the combination of her unshaking commitment to public service, her knowledge of the court system, and her deeply-held personal values drew her to look beyond herself for new ways to serve the public good.

As a former Court of Appeals clerk (she clerked for Appeals Court Judge Steve Dwyer in 2007), Coburn knows first-hand the levels of work, dedication and commitment that the job demands. Any case decided in Superior Court can be appealed, and grounds for appeal run the gamut — including irregularities in procedures, constitutional rights protection, due process, discovery, misinterpretation of a statute, application of the law, professional misconduct, and whether there was sufficient evidence to support the ruling and/or finding of guilt, to name a few. For each individual case, the appeals judges need to review and digest mountains of briefings and materials, research the law and past cases that provide precedence, go over court records, listen to oral arguments, and scrupulously fact-check everything. Only then can they render an informed decision.

“Getting these decisions right is a huge and important job, and it’s not easy,” Coburn explained. “The judges must not only represent the voters who elected them to the court – in my case the people of Snohomish County – but the citizens of the State of Washington.”

The Court of Appeals comprises 22 judges who serve staggered six-year terms. The court is divided into three divisions, each representing a specific geographic area of the state. Coburn will serve as one of 10 judges in Division I, which is located in the One Union Square Building in downtown Seattle. Division II, comprising seven judges, is based in Tacoma and Division III, with five judges, is in Spokane.

“As soon as I heard that Judge Leach was retiring, I couldn’t stop thinking about who might be best able to fill his shoes,” she continued. “As an appeals court clerk I learned how complicated and important the job is. Some people both in and out of the legal profession have the misconception that since they don’t preside over trials, serving as an appeals judge is an easy job. Well, it’s not, and not just anyone can do it. It has to be the right person – definitely not someone who wants it for the title or prestige or because they might think it’s easy.”

Then she looked in the mirror and realized that the right person was staring straight back at her.

“I knew I had the knowledge, experience and ability, the willingness to put in the work, attention to detail, and the dedication to public service that the job requires,” she said. “I’ve always been a put-up-or-shut-up kind of person; it’s a big part of who I am. If I believe in something, I need to do more than just think about it, I need to take positive action. So with the full support of my family, I filed to put my name in to run for the Court of Appeals.”

Coburn ran unopposed (“I totally did not expect that – these positions are usually contested”) and will officially take over Judge Leach’s seat on Jan. 11, 2021.

Does this mean Coburn will be leaving Edmonds?

“Oh gawd no!” she exclaimed. “First, I have to live in Snohomish County to be able to fill this seat. Second, I simply love Edmonds. It’s my home for sure.”

The Coburn family are avid sports enthusiasts, and snowboarding is high on their list of favorite family activities. From left: Linda Coburn, son Kai, husband Doug, son Li. (Photo courtesy Linda Coburn)

A 28-year Edmonds resident, the 56-year-old Coburn is an indelible thread in the fabric of the community. She and husband Doug raised their two boys Kai and Li here, sent them to Edmonds public schools, and cheered them on during the years they competed on the Yost Park swim team and in Pacific Little League (where Judge Coburn still volunteers as an umpire).

A sports nut all her life, Coburn found what would become a lifetime passion on the junior high volleyball court. This carried over into college, where she jumped feet first into running the University of Washington Volleyball Club and then helped start the men’s division of that club. Never content to do things halfway, in graduate school she became captain/player/coach of the Ohio University Volleyball Club Women’s Team. Back in the Northwest, she started the Women’s Fours League in Seattle and eventually moved that league to Edmonds after persuading the city to take it over.

Judge Coburn makes the sand fly as she returns the ball during an energetic beach volleyball match. (Photo courtesy Linda Coburn)

And back in 1982, when she least expected it, love bloomed on the volleyball court.

“It was when I was running the UW volleyball club,” she related. “Part of my job was kicking people out of the gym when the club had practice. Doug was what I’d describe as a volleyball gym rat, and it seemed like he was always in the way and I was always asking him to leave.”

One thing led to another, and the two began playing volleyball together. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“I am very lucky that Doug and I share a love of volleyball. We’ve played together since we first met and continue to do so,” she said. “After moving to Edmonds, we played in the Edmonds Summer Coed League, while our kids (just tots at the time) enjoyed climbing on the Frances Anderson Field playground equipment. As the years went by, my son Kai actually formed a team with some of the kids he met on the playground equipment. And they’re good! They’ve kicked our butts on the volleyball court on more than one occasion.

“I still compete in many indoor and beach tournaments and have organized several travel teams,” she added. “Unfortunately, COVID caused many events to be canceled this year and next. I had volunteered to be the co-chair of the Washington State Senior Games Beach Volleyball event this year. It was going to be beach volleyball’s inaugural year this summer. Hopefully, when the world is in a safer place, we will have that event.”

Linda Coburn and son Kai pause for a photo on the volleyball court. (Photo courtesy Linda Coburn)

But her passion for sports is more than just volleyball. “We’re a huge sports family,” Coburn exclaimed.

Kai and Li (now 28 and 25 respectively) grew up playing sports in the Sno-King Youth Club. Both competitive swimmers, they swam for the Yost Pool team and later became lifeguards there. Kai was co-captain of the Edmonds-Woodway Boys Swim Team his senior year, while Li swam competitively for the Northshore YMCA Swim Club and for Meadowdale his freshman year.

In addition to swimming, the boys grew up playing for Pacific Little League, where Coburn jumped into umpiring, which she continues to do.

Linda Coburn’s judging is not limited to the courtroom – she also calls balls and strikes as a volunteer umpire for Pacific Little League. (Photo courtesy Linda Coburn)

And when members of the Coburn family are not actively playing sports or managing sports-related activities, they head up to the slopes for a day of family snowboarding. “We look forward to it every winter,” she added.

A portrait of the Coburn family on the slopes. (Photo courtesy Linda Coburn)

Graduating from the UW with a bachelor’s in communications, Coburn headed for the Midwest, earning a master’s degree in journalism at Ohio University. After returning to the Pacific Northwest, she landed at The Seattle Times, where she worked for 13 years, from 1989-2002. Over the years her energy, dedication and passion to take on new challenges saw her rise to simultaneously serving as local news editor for the Sunday paper and features editor, a two-fold job with very different demands.

“These are two very different jobs,” she explained. “Editing the local news for the Sunday paper meant that every Saturday was jam-packed with work, getting everything ready to print in time for the Sunday edition – but it was hard balancing this with being a parent and being there for my kids. Features – gardening, real estate, etc. – was better in this regard, because much could be done ahead of time, so it was good for my family life.

“I loved working for The Times,” she said. “I got paid to be curious, ask questions, figure out how things are done, be a voice for the voiceless. Sure I was crazy busy doing both jobs, but really, I loved the challenge, the pace and being in the middle of things. It was a joy.”

On top of this, it spoke to her core values of public service, hard work and contributing to the greater good.

“I strongly believe that journalism and the free press are vital to a free and democratic society,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that journalism is the fourth branch of government, providing a needed set of checks and balances on the other three.”

But one day The Times informed her that it wasn’t working for her to do both jobs. They basically said she was stretching herself too thin and would have to pick one or the other.

Almost simultaneously, two other things happened. One changed the world forever – the 9-11 terrorism attacks – and the other changed Coburn’s outlook forever – she was called to jury duty.

Reporting for jury duty, she was assigned to a criminal drug case and was chosen as jury foreperson. It plunged her into a whole new world, and she immediately became caught up in sifting through and weighing the details of evidence and testimony, and working with her fellow jurors to reach a verdict. After the case was over, she confessed to Doug how energized she was about it, and how it seemed a new exciting world had just opened up.

At the same time, the 9-11 attacks prompted her – as it did many others – to take a critical look at her life, realize life is short, and ask if she’s really doing what she should be doing and using her time, talents and energy in the best way possible.

“After some deep reflection, I realized that staying with The Times would not take me where I should be going,” she concluded. “That’s when Doug asked me about my jury duty and the energy I felt around it.  He point-blank asked if I thought I could do law – and it only took a moment to respond yes.”

That led Coburn to applying and being accepted to the Seattle University School of Law.

“I was no spring chicken,” she admitted. “Most of my fellow students were straight out of college. I was older and had plenty of real-life experience under my belt – and I absolutely loved every moment of law school!”

While in law school worked as an intern with the Northwest Defenders Association where she confesses that she “caught the bug” to be a public defender.  She graduated cum laude, passed the bar exam, clerked for a while with then-Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Bowden, and began working as a public defender with the Snohomish County Public Defenders Association.

“Public service is in my blood, so I knew working for a law firm was not for me,” she said. “It was very fulfilling to represent people who for a host of reasons could not afford to hire a lawyer.”

Coburn is looking forward to her new job on the Court of Appeals, which starts in January.

While she was working as a public defender, then-Edmonds Municipal Court Judge Doug Fair was elected to District Court, creating an opening on the local bench.

“This was so exciting for me,” she said. “I care about this town and I care who is on the court, and it opened the possibility to be a judge in my hometown Edmonds.  So I put my name in with Mayor Dave Earling, and while several others were interested, in 2015 he chose to appoint me to the position. I was confirmed by the City Council to fill Judge Fair’s term, and in 2017 ran and was elected to another term.”

And as might be expected, Coburn brought her signature mix of energy, dedication to public service, investment in the community, attention to detail, and infectious enthusiasm to the Edmonds Municipal Court.

“I care about the system and I want to ensure that everyone who comes through my courtroom is treated fairly and with respect and dignity,” she said. “As a lawyer my reach is just limited to my client, but as a judge my reach is wider — I make sure everyone who comes through my courtroom is treated with respect, is fairly treated. As a public defender I’ve seen an array of judges in action – many were shining examples to me, but to be fair, some weren’t. I try to take lessons from and emulate the great judges I saw, and make sure I don’t make the mistakes that I have seen from the not-so-positive examples.

“My overall goal is simple,” she stated. “I want the Edmonds Municipal Court to be the best muni court in the state, and I’m willing to work day and night to make it so.”

Innovations Coburn brought to the court during her tenure include setting up Community Court, which literally brings the courtroom out of downtown Edmonds and into the community so it is easily reached by people with mobility issues, no access to computers (and hence no access to online court), financial issues, and other hardships that would make appearing in downtown Edmonds difficult. Located at Swedish/Edmonds hospital, the Community Court is well-positioned to serve its target clients – including folks with no personal transportation and little money for buses.

“This makes it easier for them to get to court,” Coburn explained. “Another plus is that in many of these cases, the court will order psychological or other health-related evaluations, and at the hospital these are available immediately and without the need to get a separate appointment at another location and deal with the logistics of getting there.”

Sadly, COVID restrictions have put Community Court on hold, but Coburn is hopeful that it can be reinstated once the crisis passes.

Another innovation she has brought to bear during her tenure on the court is the increased use of “moral reconation therapy” or MRT, a program aimed at reducing recidivism among domestic violence offenders.

“Before MRT, the traditional solution to domestic violence (DV) offenders was to order an assessment, and complete whatever treatment etc. the assessment recommends,” she explained. “One big problem is that traditional DV treatment costs money, and this is often beyond the ability of the person to pay and insurance will not cover it.  Courts can’t sanction a defendant who simply can’t pay for their assessments, fines, etc. It’s not willfully going against a court order – they just don’t have the ability to pay. This leaves few options, and often offenders would simply be turned back out into the community where they would be exposed to the same old triggers as before – which can lead straight to re-offending.”

This is where MRT comes in, offering a way to break the cycle. It’s a six-month program meeting once a week. Run by trained facilitators, MRT includes set lesson plans and assignments, all aimed at helping the offender identify behavior patterns, attitudes and situations that trigger them to become violent, how to recognize when you’re triggered, and developing skills to not engage.

“It’s a way to help DV offenders help themselves,” Coburn said. “I would much rather they succeed through an affordable program like MRT than have them continue the domestic violence pattern of cycling in and out of jail with no real choices. And in the time I’ve been muni court judge, I haven’t had a single case of recidivism from a person who had been through MRT.”

Coburn currently serves two Washington State Supreme Court commissions, as a commissioner on Minority and Justice and on the advisory committee to Gender and Justice. Other notable honors and accomplishments include her 2016 appointment to the governing board of the District and Municipal Court Judges’Association (DMCJA), and being named Judge of the Year by the Washington Asian Bar Association in 2018.

Oh yes, and bringing home the gold medal in volleyball from the 2016 World Senior Games.

Coburn’s departure for the Court of Appeals leaves a big hole on the Edmonds Municipal Court, and Mayor Mike Nelson didn’t hesitate to ask her to serve on the selection panel tasked with interviewing candidates and recommending her successor. On Tuesday, the mayor announced that he has named Edmonds resident Whitney Rivera to take Coburn’s place on the court, pending city council confirmation.

Coburn is pleased with the choice, saying that Edmonds “is so fortunate to not only have a judge who is passionate about fairness and justice, but who is homegrown. Whitney Rivera lives in Edmonds and graduated from Edmonds-Woodway High School. What an inspiration she will be to our next generation of leaders.

“For me, I wanted to see my replacement appointed quickly so we can work together for a while to ensure a smooth transition,” she added.  “I’m here through Jan. 11, but I do plan to take some vacation before starting on the Appeals Court.”

And what does she plan to do with that vacation? Travel? Snowboard? Relax?

As you may guess by now, the answer is none of the above.

“I need to get to work on my cases for January Appeals Court,” she confessed. “I’ve got a stack of briefings to read before I start, and I want to be sure I’m prepared and ready. Appeals Court is a big job, and I need to hit the boards running!”

— By Larry Vogel 

  1. Thank you Larry for a great article about a great judge. Months ago I came across a TVW interview with Judge Coburn. I was immediately impressed with her detailed knowledge of a somewhat obscure legal matter, and the breadth of her understanding. She spoke in a manner that non-lawyers could comprehend. Her passion for seeking and finding and creating justice, in its broadest sense, came shining through.

    I’m delighted to see her elevated to the Court of Appeals, and I fully expect to see her on the State Supreme Court before her legal journey is complete.

  2. Fabulous journalism, Larry, and your pictures captured the epitome of her.

    Judge Coburn is a wonderful example of how hard work can be effectively balanced with family and outside interest. Linda did so much for advancing the Judicial branch of Edmonds into a modern, highly objective, yet compassionate courtroom. I am sure one day we will see her sitting at the Superior Court Bench as her intelligence and empathy is just what the world needs today in our Courts.

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