Retired Superior Court judge ‘never took it lightly’
When Chris Culp became a judge more than three decades ago, he had no specific expectations, but he liked the opportunity, he said.
“I wanted to make decisions, instead of being a lawyer,” he said in a recent interview.
When Culp retired in late March as an Okanogan County Superior Court judge, he will have spent most of his 35-year legal career weighing cases in county courts. Culp had worked only four years in private practice as a public defender when he successfully ran for judge of the Okanogan County District Court in 1986. He was appointed as a judge of the Court superior by the governor at the time. Chris Gregoire in 2011.
It was by chance that he started in the district court, where, despite the overwhelming responsibility, the problems are necessarily limited, he said. “If I was being brutally honest, I was a little naive about what the job entailed,” Culp said.
Culp quickly realized that there’s a lot more to decision making than meets the eye. Communicating the rationale for a decision is crucial, as people usually have different ideas about what is right, he said. People may disagree with the court’s decision, but Culp always wanted to make sure they understood it. “So you did your job,” he said.
Culp attributes much of his success to receiver Dennis Rabidou and bailiff Mary Horner, his colleagues throughout his tenure on the Superior Court. “It’s really nice when you can’t wait to come to work every day because of who you work for,” he said. “Any success I’ve had is largely due to the efforts of others.”
He also credits his wife, attorney Peg Callaway, and family for keeping him grounded and helping him maintain a healthy work-life balance.
There are a handful of cases that Culp will remember for a long time â mostly situations that affected parental rights. These decisions reflect the character of a judge and require extreme sensitivity â you have to care deeply about the impacts on parents and children, he said.
Some criminal cases will also stay with him. When a case involves gruesome photos or difficult testimony, it’s crucial to be mindful of your own feelings and the well-being of the jury, Culp said.
Sometimes, months or years after a decision, Culp would receive a card from someone he had convicted. The person would tell their story and say that while Culp probably wouldn’t remember them, Culp’s decision â sometimes even to send them to jail â changed their lives, he said. Although few sent these cards, he kept them all.
In his 35 years on the bench, Culp has gone through many changes. Compared to three decades ago, in recent years many more disputes have ended up in court, instead of being resolved on their own, he said.
There has been a striking increase in the number of civil cases related to the cannabis industry, often with business partners suing for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Culp said. The practice of law resembles our society, and there is now a lot of conflict, contention and disagreement, he said.
Culp wants more people to go through mediation before going to court. “I strongly believe that if they come to a resolution themselves, they’ll be happier in the long run than if a judge says, ‘That’s it,'” he said. “But some people just want their day in court.”
Culp is extremely proud of the county’s 15-year experience with Therapeutic Drug Addiction Court, which takes a holistic approach to addiction issues, providing intensive services to help people with housing and other needs.
For the past two years, the county has offered a similar approach through Therapeutic Family Court, which provides community support and resources to help people reunite safely with their children. Some even have their children with them throughout the 18-month program, he said.
“It’s so much fun, because you see the good in people and recognize that they just need help and an opportunity to get back on their feet,” Culp said.
To look forward
Culp has its roots in the Methow Valley. He started freshman year at Twisp and remembers playing at the warehouse in the old Twisp Ranger District, the complex that is now TwispWorks.
He is pleased that his replacement, Robert Grim, who was sworn in March 25, will bring a Methow Valley perspective to the job. Grim brings significant experience to the criminal and civil work from his time as a district court judge. He also has experience in therapeutic courts, Culp said.
The Okanogan County Superior Court will see more changes next year, as Culp’s longtime colleague, Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson, will have to retire as he turns 75. The Governor will appoint a replacement and the position will be filled in 2024. .
In retirement, Culp plans to work on his home and garden and spend more time with his grandchildren in the Walla Walla area.
He and his wife are taking a trip that has always been “on his bucket list”. This fall they have tickets to see “Phantom of the Opera” at Syndey’s Opera House in Australia. “Hearing this amazing music, in this building, is a once in a lifetime experience,” he said.
âI thank the citizens of Okanogan County for trusting me all these years. I never took it lightly,â Culp said.