WA judicial commission sets hearing for Tri-Cities judge on harassment, abuse claims

A state commission plans a hearing to decide if a Tri-Cities judge violated judicial conduct rules when he allegedly abused his now ex-wife and harassed a former girlfriend.

Washington’s Commission on Judicial Conduct announced this week plans for a fact-finding hearing at 9 a.m. May 20 at the Benton County Justice Center.

Six members of the commission, which includes judges, attorneys and members of the public, will decide whether Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Sam Swanberg violated three of the codes that guide the behavior of judges.

Swanberg is accused of breaking the law, acting in a way that hurts the public’s trust in judges and using his office to advance his personal interests, according to a statement of charges filed late last year.

While Swanberg has not been convicted of any crimes, the commission has the power to find that he broke the law and violated the codes of judicial conduct. The penalty can range from a reprimand to being removed from office by the state Supreme Court.

Swanberg’s attorney, Scott Johnson, has filed a response which denies all of the allegations.

He told the Tri-City Herald this week they’re continuing to cooperate with the commission as the case works its way through the commission’s procedures.

There is a chance Swanberg and the commission could reach a mutual agreement concerning the accusations before the hearing is held.

Walla Walla District Court Judge Kristian E. Hedline is scheduled to preside over the hearing. The other members include:

  • Robert Alsdorf, a King County attorney, and head of Alsdorf Dispute Resolution.

  • Steven James, a retired police supervisor from Lewis County.

  • Mustafa Mohamedali, a Thurston County engineer and Washington State Department of Transportation research manager.

  • Marsha Moody, a Pierce County resident and the retired owner/president of a large insurance company.

  • Erin Williams, a Spokane County resident and current executive director of Spokane County’s Health Sciences and Services Authority.

Swanberg continues to serve as one of seven Benton-Franklin Superior Court judges who handle civil and felony criminal cases, divorces, paternity and custody issues. He was appointed to the position in 2017, elected in 2018 and 2020 and is up for election in 2024.

Judge accusations

The judge’s troubles started in late 2021 when a former girlfriend Sila Salas asked for an anti-harassment order in Benton County to keep him from bothering her.

As part of that case, his ex-wife Stephanie Barnard, now a state legislator, said she suffered years of mental and physical abuse at his hands. They’d been married 33 years and have six children.

While Swanberg did not fight Salas’ anti-harassment order, he denied abusing Barnard.

Her accusations led to a Franklin County sheriff’s investigation and two charges of fourth-degree assault with domestic violence allegations. He was acquitted of those charges following a short trial in 2022.

Swanberg alerted the commission in 2022 that he was the subject of an anti-harassment order and that kicked off the commission investigation.

After conducting its own investigation and the conclusion of the criminal case, the commission started disciplinary proceedings. Swanberg was served with a statement of allegations in October 2022 and he responded the next month.

Nearly a year later, the commission believes it has enough proof to level charges against Swanberg for violating the code of judicial conduct.

Johnson previously pointed out that the charges are only allegations, emphasizing that Swanberg was acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing in Franklin County.

“Judge Swanberg has been actively serving as a Superior Court judge in all facets of the court’s business,” Johnson previously said in a written statement. “Criminal and civil attorneys have continued to want Judge Swanberg to hear their cases, as they value his experience, demeanor and knowledge on the bench.”

What will happen

If the case ends up going to a hearing, both sides will get a chance to present evidence. The commission will need convince a majority of the members that Swanberg took the actions he is accused of and that they violated the rules judges need to follow, said commission Executive Director Reiko Callner.

They have to meet the standard of “clear, cogent and convincing” evidence, which is a lower standard than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Callner said.

After the May hearing, the members will get a chance to deliberate and come to decision. Commission rules require the decision to be presented publicly during a regular or special commission meeting.

The members don’t all need to agree on the ruling, and any member can file a dissent.

They can decide to either dismiss the charges or admonish, reprimand or censure a judge. An admonishment is a written warning, while a reprimand requires some remedial measures.

The highest level of punishment — censure — can involve suspension or removal from the bench. Any decision involving suspension or removal must be approved by the Washington State Supreme Court.

Swanberg also can appeal the commission’s decision to the Supreme Court.

At any point in the process, the judge and the commission could resolve the case through a settlement agreement.

Anti-harassment order

Swanberg was first accused of improper behavior a few days before Christmas 2021 when a former court clerk asked for an anti-harassment protection order.

At the time, the two had been in what Swanberg described as an exclusive and intense dating relationship for about five months.

Salas, now 27, claimed that in the month after their breakup, Swanberg, now 57, continued to call, send messages, stop by her house or work and even had his mother talk with her, despite her insistence that they were no longer together.

She said it culminated in Swanberg confronting her while she was in her car in the parking lot of her workplace in December 2021, then walking through her office in an attempt to see her.

The next day, Salas got a temporary order against him.

His attorney at the time told the Herald that Swanberg agreed to the order so that Salas would feel comfortable at work.

The one-year protection order expired on Jan. 6, 2023. It has not been renewed.

The commission is alleging that Swanberg violated the rules by harassing Salas, according to the charging document.

“Respondent engaged in repeated attempts to contact her and resume the relationship, despite her repeated and unambiguous requests to be left alone and for him to stop contacting her,” according to the statement of charges.

The Benton County Sheriff’s Office conducted an investigation that was forwarded to the state Attorney General’s Office. After reviewing the case, the AG’s Office declined to file charges.

Abuse allegations

As part of Salas’ case, Barnard filed a sworn statement claiming she was the victim of a “decades-long pattern of ongoing physical and emotional abuse,” according to the commission’s statement.

He was later charged in Franklin County with pushing Barnard down hard enough to leave a bruise in February 2021, and then dragging her out of a room by her legs during an argument the following day.

At the time of the confrontations, Barnard and Swanberg were staying in separate bedrooms in the same house as they worked through their divorce.

Swanberg testified that Barnard lashed out at him and his car in a series of confrontations, and he didn’t feel like he had any other option but to react how he did. And the jury agreed, finding he acted in self-defense.

While the judicial commission did not cite any specific accusations of abuse in the charges, it felt there was enough evidence showing that there was a pattern, according to the statement.