Longtime Hoquiam Municipal Court Judge William J. Stewart has retired from the bench but still plans to practice law out of his Montesano office.
Stewart said he accepted the appointment to the bench as a way to pay back the community that supported him through his education.
“I worked in the shake mills in Hoquiam for many years, which made it possible to pay for school,” he said. “I ended up setting on the bench in four different decades, the ‘80s, ‘90, 2000s and 2010s.” He was appointed to the position in 1988 by then Hoquiam mayor Phyllis Shrauger, the city’s first female mayor.
Stewart is a lifelong resident of Montesano, with the exception of his college years.
“Montesano High School graduate 1975,” he said. After graduation he spent seven years at the University of Puget Sound completing his undergraduate work and earning his law degree. When that was complete, he came back to Montesano to practice with his dad, James, also a longtime attorney who passed away in 2011 at age 96.
Since his appointment to the bench in the late ‘80s, he’s covered just about every misdemeanor case you could think of. DUI, domestic disputes, assaults and “minor drug stuff” take up the bulk of the court’s time. The economy in Hoquiam, and across the county, is something Stewart believes plays a part in many of the cases over which he has presided.
“The economy contributes to the drugs and violence,” he said.
Stewart said he often sees the same defendant for similar violations. The repeat business is due to the economic hardships that face many residents.
“It’s a merry-go-round,” said Stewart. “You need to have a job to pay your fines, in order to get a job you need to drive, if you don’t have a job and can’t pay your child support what’s the first thing that happens? They take away your license.”
He said the court has made some progress in helping people caught in the cycle of suspended license fines. “We have good city attorneys that we can work with to get the people caught in the merry-go-round who really do want to clean up their act get their licenses back.”
Stewart’s work ethic and desire to serve the community came from his dad.
“My dad’s generation, my dad, saved the world,” he said. At the onset of World War II he joined the Navy and wound up captaining a ship in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. He found himself in charge of what was basically a commercial fishing boat outfitted with a machine gun and some depth charges. He commanded a crew of Scandinavian fishermen and was told to go out and hunt for submarines. Several years later, while captain of a ship in the Pacific, his ship took a direct hit from a kamikaze, but was still able to rescue a number of sailors from a nearby sunken destroyer.
After the war, the elder Stewart started private practice in Montesano.
“He stayed in the Grays Harbor reserves, had a brand-new law practice, a baby on the way and was running for the Legislature when his unit was called up for Korea,” said Stewart. Stewart said his father didn’t talk a lot about his war experiences until much later in life.
With all the tragedy Stewart has witnessed in nearly 30 years on the bench, he said it’s the occasional success stories that keep him grounded.
“I was in Portland one time at some diner at 6 a.m. The waitress kept looking me up and down, saying she knew me from somewhere, and I thought, ‘Oh boy,’” said Stewart. “Finally she said, ‘Hoquiam court, right?’ I said yes, and she replied that the way I treated her in court helped her get her life together.” She told Stewart she was no longer committing crimes and had kicked her drug habit.
Stewart leaves the bench grateful for the “dedicated and hard working court clerks,” who helped people, both offenders and victims of crime, deal with difficult situations. He also thanked the Hoquiam Police.
“Hoquiam’s police department is top-notch,” he said when he announced his retirement to the Hoquiam City Council. “Their dedication to enforcing the law is properly tempered by common sense and compassion. I am constantly amazed by the calm and confident manner they handle incredibly difficult situations.”