On April 2, 1973, Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) nominates Seattle attorney Barbara T. Yanick (1936-1992) for a newly created position on the Seattle Municipal Court. Yanick, a former deputy prosecuting attorney and private practitioner, will become the first woman to hold a seat on the busy court, whose three existing judges are burdened with an average of 75 cases a day. Yanick will be reelected without opposition four consecutive times, but her years on the bench will not be free of controversy and she will prove far more popular with police and prosecutors than with defense attorneys. She will serve on the court for 17 years, retiring for health reasons (but in a manner criticized as a questionable, and unsuccessful, attempt to facilitate her husband's election to replace her) in 1990, two years before her death from cancer.
Early Life and Career
Barbara Yanick was born Barbara Wilson Taze on January 23, 1936, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, one of two daughters of Edwin Harold Taze (1904-?) and Lois Marian Taze. The family relocated to Baltimore, Maryland, while Yanick was still a child and there she attended Friends High School. In 1952, at age 16, she spent three months in Europe during the summer, traveling by ship from New York to Rotterdam. Upon her return she entered and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, majoring in English literature.
Yanick went to work for IBM and a few years later was described as "a young executive on the rise" ("Seattle Judge Learns ..."). In late 1961 or early 1962 the company sent her to Seattle to set up its exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. When IBM told her that she would probably be transferred to the company's New York office, Yanick realized that "I couldn't see myself working with computers until the year 2001," her projected retirement date ("Seattle Judge Learns ..."). She stayed with IBM for a year after the fair ended, then quit and decided to remain in Seattle. In 1963 she was admitted to the University of Washington School of Law, and on December 13 that year she wed Miles A. Yanick (b. 1935), a recent graduate of the university's School of Architecture. Her name on the marriage certificate is given as "Barbara Taze Martinis," which would indicate an earlier marriage, although no records could be located to establish this as fact.
Yanick earned her law degree in 1966, passed the bar exam, and went to work in the King County Prosecutor's office for one year. She immediately dove into trial work, and within weeks of passing the bar exam was co-counsel with another prosecutor in a negligent homicide case involving two deaths. There was a brief interruption of her career in 1967 when the couple's first son, Miles Aaron Yanick, was born, after which she left the prosecutor's office to enter private practice, specializing in mortgage law. In 1969 she gave birth to a second son, Nicholas Taze Yanick.
There were far fewer women attorneys in Seattle in the 1960s than would be the case in later decades, but the women's movement was growing in strength and numbers and progressive politicians were increasingly winning city elections. In November 1966 three reformers -- Phyllis Lamphere (1922-2018), Tim Hill (b. 1936), and Sam Smith (1922-1995) -- were elected to the Seattle City Council. Sam Smith was the first African American elected to city government, and Phyllis Lamphere became the council's second woman member, joining incumbent Myrtle Edwards (1894-1969). On April 19, 1968, Radical Women (a feminist group that originated in Seattle), protested the appearance of a Playboy bunny on the UW campus in what may have been the first women's-liberation demonstration in the United States. Seattle was near the head of the progressive pack, and there were deliberate efforts underway by some city officials to bring more women and minorities into positions of influence.
In November 1969 Seattle voters elected a liberal Democrat, Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), as mayor. After a rocky start, Uhlman found his footing and began implementing aggressive affirmative-action and fair-employment policies for the city. In 1974, shortly after beginning his second term after a close election, he reorganized the city's job-classification system so that employment would be more accessible to women and minorities. Later in 1974 these efforts and other contentious issues prompted some city employees, including most of the fire department, to start a recall campaign against the mayor. But when the recall vote was held in July 1975 Uhlman won by a wide margin.
Blazing the Trail
Barbara Yanick first was considered for a judicial seat in 1972 when her name was submitted for consideration as a candidate for the King County District Court bench. She wasn't chosen, but still had ambitions to be a judge and actively pursued a position. As she recalled later, "I didn't get it [the district court judgeship] but I thought about it and went to see Wes (Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman) and had some people write in about an appointment to the Municipal Court" ("Seattle Judge Learns ... ).
Her efforts and those of her supporters prevailed, and on April 2, 1973, Uhlman nominated Yanick for a new fourth seat on the overburdened Seattle Municipal Court, whose three sitting judges, even aided by a bevy of pro tem judges, were each hearing an average of 75 cases a day. On April 10 Yanick's nomination was approved unanimously by the city council's Human Resources and Judiciary Committee, and one week after that the full city council unanimously concurred. On April 25, 1973, at 8:45 a.m. in the courtroom of veteran Judge Vernon Towne in the city's Public Safety Building, Barbara Yanick was sworn in as the first woman to serve full-time on the municipal-court bench.
On the Bench
Municipal courts have limited jurisdiction and are empowered to hear only criminal and civil cases that arise under the ordinances of the city that the court serves. Much of the Seattle Municipal Court's daily docket involves such things as drunk driving and other traffic-related matters, criminal misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors, and domestic-violence issues. Many of the defendants are poor and represented by public defenders, who have extremely heavy caseloads. It is a court where much is disposed of by plea agreements and in which many contested cases are tried to a judge sitting without a jury.
When Judge Yanick took the bench in 1973, the new Department 4 over which she presided was designated as night court, which was established due to the huge number of cases handled by the court, the limited number of available courtrooms, and the desirability of allowing some defendants to avoid missing work to come to court. By 1975 she was in night court only two times a week, serving the other three during the court's normal daytime hours.
Sometimes Wrong, Sometimes Right, Always Decisive
Given the huge volume and variety of cases heard in municipal court, judges there often have little time to give every case the consideration it might deserve. The constant pressure of backed-up dockets and the tendency of judges to give police testimony significant credence tends to encourage plea bargaining. But now and then, even in this court of limited jurisdiction, questions of constitutional magnitude must be decided, and Judge Yanick saw her share.
One of the first came in 1974 when a defendant challenged Seattle's prowling law as being unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Judge Yanick disagreed and found the defendant guilty. The conviction was reversed on appeal by a judge in the King County Superior Court, who struck down the law as unconstitutional, a decision later validated by the state Supreme Court in another case.
Judge Yanick did not hesitate to rule the other way when confronted with a different law and different facts. In 1975 she dismissed lewd-conduct charges against two topless female sun bathers on the grounds that the statute that made such exposure unlawful did not apply equally to men baring their chests, and thus discriminated on the basis of sex. In two earlier cases, other judges in the municipal court had rejected similar challenges to the law, but this didn't deter Yanick from making an independent analysis and reaching a contrary conclusion, one that both police and prosecutors publicly complained about. But, as she explained, "it was a legal decision, not a moral one," although, she added, "I don't think the ability to lactate is lewd" ("Judge Not Excited by Topless Ruling").
On another occasion Judge Yanick acquitted two men charged with reckless endangerment after they parachuted off the Space Needle, pointing out that they had stationed people on the ground to warn passersby. One lawyer later commented on this and the sunbathing case, saying "Those were courageous rulings, because politically it would have been better for her not to make them" ("Seattle Judge Learns ... ").
Despite these occasional victories, defense attorneys by and large did not enjoy appearing before Judge Yanick. Each election cycle the Seattle-King County Bar Association asks attorneys to rate the judges of Seattle Municipal Court and other courts and, beginning with the 1978 election, Judge Yanick consistently ranked at or near the bottom. The reasons for the low ratings were reported in The Seattle Times, and detail the attorneys' views of both her strengths and her weaknesses:
"Judge Yanick was rated highest for ruling with decisiveness; maintaining control and order in the courtroom; industry; and appearing impartial with regard to race, sex, religion, cultural or ethnic origin. Her lowest ratings were in the areas of patience, courtesy, and appearing not to prejudge the outcome of the case. Twenty-seven percent of the lawyers said they avoided appearing in front of her ("Lawyers Rate City Judges ... ").
In a 1983 bar-association survey, Yanick was ranked dead last among the 29 judges evaluated, but the highly subjective nature of judicial popularity contests was illustrated by the contrast between that result and two polls of law-enforcement officers from the previous year. Yanick was the only judge to receive a "superior" rating in a 1982 survey of Seattle Police Guild members. And King County District Court Judge Joel Rindal, who had the highest rating in the 1983 lawyers' poll, was one of only two judges to be given a "poor" rating in a 1982 poll of state patrol officers. As a Seattle Times columnist pointed out, "judicial beauty is in the eye of the beholder" ("Police, Lawyers in Sharp Conflict").
Judge Yanick was not unaware of some of the the traits that gave rise to criticism, acknowledging as early as 1977 that she did not possess "as even a temperament as I should have. I don't have trouble being patient and tolerant with unrepresented defendants, but I get very frustrated with lawyers who don't do a good job for their clients" ("Seattle Judge Learns ... ").
A Controversial Exit
Yanick's marriage to Miles Yanick ended in 1975, and in August of 1980 she married a Seattle attorney, John Vercimak (1940-2010), who in 1973 had helped implement the magistrate program in the Seattle Municipal Court to handle routine traffic tickets and such things as building-code violations. In 1984 Judge Yanick was treated for cancer with apparent success, and in 1986 she was reelected, again unopposed. In 1989 her colleagues on the bench chose her as presiding judge of the Seattle Municipal Court.
In 1990 Judge Yanick was stricken by a different cancer, but she nonetheless put herself up for reelection. Because attorneys are reluctant to run against judges before whom they may have to later appear, it seemed that Yanick would again be unopposed. But on July 27, 1990, in the last minutes of the last day that candidates could file for public office, Vercimak, now in private practice, entered the contest for his wife's seat on the bench. It was not a popular move with the public or the practicing bar, but Vercimak offered a sympathetic motive: "The goal was to continue her health insurance through the city because this is a pre-existing condition and no other insurance will provide coverage" ("Husband, and Wife, File ... ").
Suspicion remained, and it was vindicated on August 1, 1990, when, at the last possible moment, Judge Yanick withdrew from the race, leaving her husband as an unopposed candidate for the seat she had held for 17 years. This turned suspicion to outrage, and the couple's actions were now viewed by many as a cynical ploy to insure Vercimak's election. An editorial in The Seattle Times was unsparing:
"Judge Barbara Yanick's machinations to help her husband inherit her seat on the Seattle Municipal Court show utter contempt for the elective process. She has demeaned her office and violated the trust of voters and potential candidates for that seat" ("Muni-Court Nepotism ... ").
Sadly, public expressions of sympathy for Judge Yanick's cancer ordeal were largely muted by the circumstances of her leave-taking. Since the filing deadline for her seat had passed when she stepped down, the only possible way to make it a contested race was for a write-in candidate to step forward. And one did: Judith Hightower, the supervising attorney of the Seattle Municipal Court unit of the Associated Counsel for the Accused, a public-defender agency representing low-income clients that she joined in 1983. "I respect Judge Yanick,'' Hightower said, "I wasn't going to run against her. If I had known she would not be a candidate, I would have filed" ("Yanick's Husband to Have Write-in Foe").
On September 9, 1990, a Seattle Times editorial endorsed Hightower in the primary election and took another swipe at Yanick and Vercimak. "Hightower and other potential candidates were shut out of this race because Judge Barbara Yanick, who now holds the seat, manipulated her withdrawal to make her husband, John Vercimak, the only candidate on the ballot. Vercimak brings his integrity into question by the way he entered the race" ("Municipal and District Courts ... ").
In the September 18 primary election, Hightower received considerably more than 5 percent of the votes cast, easily meeting the requirement for a place on the ballot in the November general election. She received a renewed endorsement from The Seattle Times and polled nearly 70 percent of the vote. She, and not John Vercimak, would be the new judge in Department 4 of the Seattle Municipal Court, where Barbara Yanick had presided for 17 years.
A Final Farewell
Judge Barbara Yanick quietly left the bench to continue a grueling course of chemotherapy, but it would be of little avail. After a long battle, she succumbed to the disease on October 9, 1992, just less than two years after her retirement. Any bitterness remaining from the 1990 election had diffused -- her pioneering appointment to the bench in 1973 and her long years of service were lauded in the press and in comments by her colleagues.
Barbara Madsen (b. 1952), who served with Yanick on the Seattle Municipal Court and was presiding judge of that court at the time of Yanick's death (Madsen would later become chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court), "described Judge Yanick as a dynamic woman who loved life and enjoyed people," according to Yanick's Seattle Times obituary ("Barbara Yanick, Pioneering ..."). Madsen said of her late colleague:
"Court employees and the staff considered her a friend in a way they frequently don't feel toward judges. ... She was always talking to them about them. She took a personal interest in their lives. ... I thought, she is so competent and so alive. I wanted to be just like her" ("Barbara Yanick, Pioneering ...").