Building a deeper bench

September 21, 2020 · By David Sandler

This story originally appeared in Lawyer, Fall 2020.

Recently retired Judge Frank Cuthbertson ’93 reflects on his historic career

Judge Frank Cuthbertson
Judge Frank Cuthbertson '93

For a lawyer who initially had no ambition to join the bench, Frank Cuthbertson ’93 has had a momentous career as the first Black judge in Pierce County. In addition to blazing a trail for Black jurists, he has served as a catalyst for important criminal justice reforms that have advanced equity, especially for people of color.

“I felt it was important to try to improve the justice system and build public trust and confidence, and that meant throwing my hat in (to become a judge),” Cuthbertson said.

After nearly two decades of service as a Pierce County Superior Court judge, the Seattle University School of Law graduate retired in March.

Cuthbertson’s path to the bench began by working with attorneys during his initial career in community organizing and in state government in Tennessee. “They impressed me with their ability to use their legal skills to advocate for equal justice for poor people,” he said.

This inspired him to enroll in the law school, then located at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, at age 40. It turned out to be a great fit. “It was everything I expected and more. It had a strong reputation for academic rigor, and I had outstanding professors.”

While in law school, he participated in a minority clerkship program, which led to a summer internship at Davis Wright Tremaine and eventually a position as an associate after he graduated. He then served as in-house counsel for Group Health Cooperative and as an associate for Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell before being appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Gary Locke in 2001.

Cuthbertson made an impact from the bench in several ways. He helped reduce the number of incarcerated youths, especially children of color. He also created a pretrial services program in Pierce County that enabled judges to release and supervise arrested people rather than jailing them or imposing bail. And in 2016, he developed the county’s first felony mental health court, which led to lower recidivism rates through an emphasis on treatment instead of incarceration.

With his historic appointment, Cuthbertson said he felt a responsibility to help diversify the bench even further. Over the years, his mentorship and support has helped several Black attorneys become Pierce County Superior Court judges.

One of those is Judge Sabrina Ahrens ’01, appointed last year, who got to know Cuthbertson by arguing cases as a prosecutor in his courtroom. He became her mentor over time. “He kicked the door open, held the door open, and encouraged women and minorities to walk through,” she said.

Justice Helen Whitener ’98 – appointed to Pierce County Superior Court in 2015, becoming the first Black and openly LGBTQ judge in Washington – also worked in Cuthbertson’s courtroom, as a prosecutor, public defender, and private litigator. “He made me think bigger in terms of my aspirations,” she said.

In April of this year, Whitener become the first Black woman to serve on the Washington Supreme Court when Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her associate justice.

“Judge Cuthbertson understands that it’s critical to have jurists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives at the table because it ensures that the judiciary makes more well-informed decisions that impact people’s lives,” she said.

Although he is now retired, Cuthbertson is still hard at work advancing equity. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, he is serving as an advisor to a task force, created by Inslee, which will address policing reform and racial justice.

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