Clark County Superior Court judges revoke Judge Darvin Zimmerman’s authority

Video courtesy The Oregonian via YouTube

Judge has been under fire for comments he made about the officer-involved shooting death of Kevin Peterson Jr.

In a letter sent Monday to Clark County District Court Judge Darvin Zimmerman, Clark County’s Superior Court judges stated they were revoking the embattled judge’s authority to perform any Clark County Superior Court judicial officer functions, including the ability to preside over any cases.

The letter was signed by the court’s 11 judges and four commissioners. “It is the opinion of the Superior Court bench that your comments demonstrate bias and a lack of impartiality,” the letter stated. “We believe the comments diminish your credibility as a judicial officer.”

In addition to that, city of Vancouver attorney Jonathon Young informed members of the City Council this week that he is prepared to file a motion for disqualification on prejudice should Zimmerman be asked to preside over any of the city’s cases.

In a statement issued Tuesday through his attorney, Clark County District Court Judge Darvin Zimmerman apologized for comments he made last week about a Camas man who was shot and killed by Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputies Oct. 29 in Hazel Dell.

Zimmerman was not aware he was being viewed on a video when he was discussing the officer-involved shooting of 21-year-old Kevin Peterson Jr. with a member of the court staff on March 8. After the conversation was first reported by The Oregonian Newspaper, Zimmerman has been widely criticized by a number of elected officials and community leaders who have expressed concern over whether or not the 70-year-old Zimmerman should continue in his current capacity.

Judge Darvin Zimmerman (on left) is shown here in during a swearing-in ceremony held in December 2018. Photo by Chris Brown
Judge Darvin Zimmerman (on left) is shown here in during a swearing-in ceremony held in December 2018. Photo by Chris Brown

Among the comments made by Zimmerman on the video was a description of Peterson  as “the Black guy they were trying to make an angel out of.’’ Zimmerman also said he believed Peterson had a death wish and “was so dumb’’ because he thought he would likely face considerable time in jail or prison, when in fact the judge believed Peterson would have faced little or no incarceration time.

The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s office and city of Vancouver Attorney Jonathan Young have each indicated they would seek to prevent of disqualify Zimmerman from presiding over any cases involving the city and county.

Zimmerman’s Vancouver-based attorney, Josephine Townsend, issued a statement Tuesday in which Zimmerman apologized for his comments and said he was going to take some time off. Zimmerman also stated that he self-reported his statements about Peterson to the Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission is expected to review any complaints filed against Zimmerman and will likely review the video recording of his comments.

Here is Zimmerman’s full statement:

I deeply regret my statements which caused divisiveness and concern in the community that I love and serve,’’ Zimmerman stated. “I have always prided myself in being open minded, fair and just in my duties as a judicial officer.  I do understand that even my personal comments, when made public — bring about an outcry of concern because I am a judicial officer.

“In my 35 years as a jurist, I have long been a supporter of therapeutic programs that help the impoverished; I have been a promoter and speaker for Veteran’s Court; Mental Health Court and pre arrest diversion programs.  I am a staunch supporter of programs that provide alternatives to incarceration which affect people of color and the impoverished.

“I have spoken at hundreds of meetings supporting alternative programs to incarceration.  I recognize the injustice that befalls men and women of color as well as non native English speaking litigants.  I have recommended resources to litigants including Clark College language programs for immigrants who come to court and cannot speak the language.  They suffer too because they cannot understand the system and what is happening to them.  I have taken a proactive approach to help everyone in my courtroom because I truly believe that there is a better way for justice to be had.  

“All of these programs that I have supported and encouraged are meant to bring fair and equal justice to all races and genders. In that moment, after court, in a private conversation,  I was speaking as a father, about my concerns the delay by 5 months for the investigation to be completed;  of  a need for closure about Mr. Peterson’s death, which was very tragic, and why it is necessary for that information released to the public to be accurate, so that everyone, including the police get a fair evaluation of what happened. 

“My concerns as a father do not excuse the fact that my comments caused an already volatile community to again become divisive.  I am very sorry for that.  I have decided to take some time off to reflect on my behavior and to determine what I can do to help heal the community I have served. I have self reported my statements to the Commission that oversees my actions as a jurist and will fully cooperate with their investigation.   I want my colleagues and the public to know that I have accepted responsibility for my actions.’’

Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins

Among the many community leaders who issued statements regarding Zimmerman’s comments was Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins. Here is that full statement:

It has been reported to me that one of our local judges made what have been described as disparaging, if not offensive and/or insulting remarks that were recorded on a courtroom video. While I have not spoken to the judge about this matter, I do want to reiterate my beliefs both personal and professional as they relate to the expectations of myself and those in my agency.

In August of 2018, I joined Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik in issuing a “Joint Statement on Hate.’’ That document is proudly displayed in several of the Sheriff’s Office buildings, for both public and employee viewing. I stand by those words today that “the criminal justice system must be free of bias, provide equal protections for all, and serve to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.” This applies to employees of the Sheriff’s Office, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and every other component of Clark County’s criminal justice system – judges included.

I furthermore stated then and repeat now my rejection of hate, bigotry, and all actions intended (or not) to harm or intimidate others based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, or any other attribute which serves to marginalize people or groups of people. I am unwavering in my position, and there can be no mistake in my expectations of the women and men of the Sheriff’s Office in the same regard. When responding to accusations or allegations of wrongdoing on the part of this agency, I am committed to the accountability and transparency expected of this community. I am proud of my record in doing my part as Sheriff in seeing that there is a complete and thorough determination of what happened, how and why – and ultimately how we as an agency can do better.

These remain difficult times in our community, for so many, and for so many reasons. Not the least of which for families grieving the loss of loved ones under circumstances that they have unanswered questions about. Irresponsible remarks, actions or deeds that originate from those within the criminal justice system can unfortunately reflect upon all of us within that system.  It is in recognition of this, that I strive to ensure that the employees of the Sheriff’s Office conduct themselves in the highest regard.

Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Action and Reform Committee

The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Action and Reform Committee issued a statement, signed by Chairman Deborah Wechselblatt, who also serves as senior deputy prosecuting attorney. Here is that full statement:

Hate, bias, and intolerance must be eradicated from the courtroom. As prosecutors, our role is to promote equitable justice, at all times, which includes speaking out against injustices when we see them. The Judicial Code of Conduct states that “A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” 

The comments by Judge Zimmerman regarding Kevin Peterson Jr. were deeply troubling. His comments show that he cannot be impartial and unbiased; therefore, we agree with the others who have spoken out on this issue, he is not qualified to remain a judge. We support the statements from the Clark County District Court Bench, Vancouver Defenders, the Clark County Bar Association, and the NAACP Vancouver. Because impartial equitable justice cannot happen in Judge Zimmerman’s courtroom, we support Mr. Golik’s decision to move to disqualify him from all pending matters that our office is handling. 

We commit ourselves to continuing to educate ourselves, and others, on the ongoing issues of systemic racism and bias within the justice system and Clark County. We encourage our community, and especially those in the legal community, to seek out educational opportunities and resources to better understand these complex and layered issues. 

League of Women Voters

The League of Women Voters of Clark County also issued a statement, condemning the remarks made by Zimmerman. Here is that full statement:

The League of Women Voters of Clark County condemns the remarks made last week by District Court Judge Darvin Zimmerman in the wake of the fatal shooting of Kevin Peterson Jr. during a police stop.

Aligning with the official positions of the nonpartisan national and state League of Women Voters, the local League supports a criminal justice system that is just, effective, equitable, and transparent, and which fosters public trust at all stages. 

We additionally believe that our courts must be fair, efficient, accessible and staffed with qualified personnel. The comments attributed to Judge Zimmerman cast serious doubt about whether the judge can perform his duties in that spirit.

It should be further noted that the state of Washington’s Commission on Judicial Conduct stipulates a “judge shall perform the duties of judicial office, including administrative duties, without bias or prejudice.”

According to the Code of Judicial Ethics, “a judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, or engage in harassment, and shall not permit court staff, court officials, or others subject to the judge’s direction and control to do so.”  

Mr. Zimmerman’s term on the bench is scheduled to continue until the end of 2022.  But the statements he acknowledges making, despite his apology, raise serious questions about his fitness for the position.