When Judge Donald Eaton moved to San Juan Island, almost 40 years ago, he was just starting to practice law. This month, he will retire as the San Juan County Superior Court Judge.
“I have so much respect for the system that we have,” said Eaton. “Having practiced law out here and then sat [on the bench], I realize more and more how effective it really is.”
The San Juan County Superior Court Judge presides over some of the biggest cases in the county, including felony crimes, civil complaints of more than $100,000, and juvenile offenses.
After serving seven years, Eaton will step down from the San Juan County Superior Court bench on Dec. 31.
“It is an honor to have served and it isn’t just a cliche,” he said at his Dec. 15 retirement party.
Friends, co-workers and community members gathered at the courthouse to honor Eaton, who turned the state’s mandatory age of retirement, this year, at 75.
He was originally appointed to the position by the previous state governor, Christine Gregoire, in 2010, after the passing of John O. Linde, the first San Juan County Superior Court Judge. Eaton ran unopposed in 2012 and 2016.
Before Linde was appointed in 2007 by Gregoire, judges from other counties commuted to the islands to preside over San Juan cases. Superior Court Judges from Whatcom County presided in the late 1800s, then those from Island County starting in the 1970s.
In 1979, Eaton and his wife Sheryl moved to the islands from New England. At the time, there were about five local attorneys, he said, and he was often paid in salmon and fence posts.
It was the island philosophy of supporting locals that helped the Eatons survive those first years, he said, by allowing them to start a tab at the drugstore, pay rent late and even borrow law books from other attorneys.
“We got taken care of, from day one, by the families that are here,” he said
When he first started his private island law office, Eaton admits he wasn’t well-versed in Washington’s rules. Bea Crossman, the superior court clerk at the time, helped him find similar, older cases for the new attorney to replicate.
“It was almost like having a senior partner you get hired by to help you learn the ropes,” he said.
At his retirement party, Eaton was presented with a plaque and a painted portrait of himself on the bench by the San Juan County Bar Association. Barnaby Zall, a local attorney, said he used a photograph to create the painting in six weeks.
“What I really wanted to show was the judge I wanted on my case,” said Zall, who explained that Eaton has always been attentive on the bench.
Katie Loring, 39, of San Juan Island will be sworn in to replace Eaton on Dec. 29. She was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee, last November, and will serve a year of Eaton’s remaining three-year term before the seat goes to the ballot in 2018.
According to the Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials, state superior court judges earned a $169,187 salary in 2017. A superior courthouse is located in each of the state’s 39 counties, but in rural areas, judges can preside over more than one county.
Loring, who is a partner at the Friday Harbor law firm Goddu Langlie Loring Sandstrom PLLC, will step down from her practice to take over, what Eaton called, “a really hard job.”
He also said it’s a rewarding one, especially when working with young offenders, truancy cases and at-risk youth in the county’s juvenile court. Over the years, he’s ran into former juvenile defenders, who have thanked Eaton and given positive recounts of their lives, after facing the judge.
“As with anyone who works with young people, you know that you have a potential to make a difference in their lives,” said Eaton. “That is by far the most satisfying work that I do on the bench.”
As he prepares to leave the courtroom, which he called a “sacred place,” Eaton said he’s leaving the county in good hands.
“I really hope that this community appreciates all of the law and justice group that functions here,” he said. “In my experience, they are honest, hard-working people with lots of integrity; they are people you can depend upon.”