Despite the black robe, retired Judge Dalton stays true to herself
The sleeve on Jeanette Dalton’s black robe, the garment that blots out all but the face and hands of the person sitting above everyone else in a courtroom, eventually gave her away.
Dalton, who declined to run for re-election and retired in January from the Kitsap County Superior Court bench after 12 years, had relied on the sleeve to conceal a tattoo when she raised her right hand to administer the oath in court.
“I would take great pains to cover that up,” Dalton, 66, said. “I didn’t want people distracted by that. ‘Jeez, is she a biker?’”
After time, the facing in the sleeve started to wear, and as it wore it let slip glimpses of her arm tattoo, the Sanskrit script of the word “ahimsa,” Gandhi’s theory of non-violence, superimposed over a stylized dove holding an olive branch. After a trial, while visiting with jurors and thanking them for their service, the forewoman had a question: “Could we see your tattoo?”
“That’s when I found out the robe wasn’t covering up my tattoos anymore,” Dalton said. It was a revelation for the jurors, and Dalton. For jurors, they found out the judge was one of them, a human being. For Dalton, she realized that efforts to cover up her personality were, ultimately, bound to fail.
“I’m not the kind of person who cannot be myself,” she said.
Dalton 'is still herself'
For some, putting on the robe means they become a different person, but Dalton’s close friend and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst said Dalton stays?true to herself:?genuine, compassionate and possessing a joy for life.?
“It’s important people don’t lose who they?are?and their identity,” Fairhurst said. “Jeanette really did that. She is still herself.”
Born in Oxford, England, and with her?father in the Army, Dalton?moved around with her family a lot — from Europe to Asia — and had to adjust to different surroundings and people. Returning to the United States?to start college left her reeling from culture?shock.
Being raised as a “military brat” left her still feeling like a perpetual outsider, yet she honed in on the ultimate insider career, attorney and judge.
Knowing who you are can be an asset in these roles, however. Every decision that a judge makes has to be guided by objective finding?of fact as well as?the law,?Dalton said. “So it really requires you to look where you may have hidden biases or prejudices and to be very careful.”
When campaigning for election, she recalled being asked what was the most difficult decision she had to make.
“As a sitting judge, the answer to that question is the one that Jeanette doesn’t want to make,” she said.
After finishing night school at the University of Puget Sound law school — she worked during the day for a title insurance company — Dalton went to work in 1984 as a prosecutor for King County. She?came to Kitsap County in 1991, first to work for a firm in Poulsbo, later as a real estate trial attorney for a private firm in Bellevue.?She ended her career as a lawyer working as a?defense attorney based in Kingston, where she still lives with her husband, Ken Arnold, and their two Shiloh Shepherd dogs, Olive and Ruby.
She ran for her Superior Court seat in 2008, taking over after former Judge Leonard Costello declined to run for re-election. In addition to running civil and criminal trials,?she served as judge for the county's Drug Court. Last year, when Dalton declined to run again, choosing to retire, former Prosecutor Tina Robinson won election against attorney Lynn Fleischbein.
Dalton is a firm believer in a concept called “procedural justice,” a concept where people’s ideas of the legal system, and whether they see it as legitimate or not, are shaped by their personal experiences and hinge on whether they feel they are treated with respect, they are given a voice and that the authority is neutral, transparent and trustworthy.
Key to this is careful listening, she said — silencing what Dalton calls the “clatter” in one’s head to focus on what the attorney or client is saying — checking one’s biases and following?the law. That doesn't mean that a judge has to be?a robot.
“There is value in people seeing that you are truly concerned, that you truly care, that you really want the process to be fair,” she said, noting she has been gratified by the feedback she has received from those who brought their conflict into court.
“My job is to serve the people, not really the lawyers.”
She added: “You’re going to piss off a lawyer at some point anyway.”
Humanity before procedure
Her work as an attorney was satisfying, especially working as a prosecutor fresh out of law school, where?a young attorney can string together a collection of wins.
Her favorite part of being a judge??
“I loved the opportunity to be in the courtroom with litigants themselves, to hear what they had to say and use the law to try to untangle the tangled mess that was presented,” Dalton said. “That was my absolute favorite thing. It was the people who came in.”
She acknowledges her open approach was not always well received.
During a 2017 murder trial for the man accused of killing Amber Coplin, prosecutors argued Dalton had to step down lest any conviction would be overturned, saying a comment she had made to a deputy prosecutor outside the courtroom jeopardized the integrity of the trial. Dalton refused, saying anything she said was within judicial guidelines — she said her comments were about scheduling. David Kalac’s conviction and 82-year sentence was upheld on appeal.
During a particularly tense 2018 trial for an accused pimp convicted of 44 crimes related to torturing his girlfriend — which resulted in an extraordinary 4,084-month sentence — Dalton started by saying Jeremy Fenney was fortunate to live in a country with due process, but Fenney interrupted her.
"The reality is, you can give me 1,000 years right now, that's not going to change nothing," Fenney said.
"You're correct," Dalton said.?
"Alright, so let's get on with it," Fenney said.?
Looking back, Dalton said she was “trying to get flowery” when Fenney interrupted and asked her to “get on with it,” and so Dalton dispensed with her speech.?
“Well, yes we can, Mr. Fenney, 340 years, see ya,” Dalton said in a recent interview.
Others came to appreciate Dalton’s approach.
Braced for a tense settlement conference for a divorce case in Dalton’s chambers, Silverdale attorney Brandon Miller wasn’t feeling like a cup of tea. Dalton wouldn’t take no for an answer, however, and before the discussion started, brewed the attorneys a cup.
What happened next surprised him. Despite Miller’s misgivings on how the case would go, it settled before trial.?
When thinking about Dalton, he goes back to her?“settlement tea.”?To him, it signified what set Dalton apart, an insistence that “humanity come?before procedure” and how that affected everything that happened?next.?
“I think of Judge Dalton’s insistence that we not lose sight of the human stories that are at the heart of even the driest legal proceedings and her insistence that we, as lawyers, treat our opponents as people, too,” Miller said.
Kitsap Sun reporter Christian Vosler contributed to this story.