City judge is longtime community servant
April 30, 2009 · Updated 3:52 PM
By Dennis Box, The Courier-Herald
Judge James J. Helbling's black robe has the scales of justice pinned on his right breast and the flag on his left. His face is kind, but there is a wise clarity in his eyes.
Sit for a day in Bonney Lake Municipal Court and the array of cases and sheer number of defendants is staggering. During any Wednesday's criminal calendar, anywhere from 65 to more than 100 people will step before the judge in less than six hours.
Each case is handled with a calm, even sense of fairness as Helbling carefully listens to every defendant's story. It is a job the 64-year-old Judge was clearly born to do.
"I do enjoy it," Helbling said. "I guess I've grown up with it."
A big change
Helbling has been the municipal judge in Bonney Lake for the past 18 years, and the change in the job reflects the change in the town.
"When I first started we had court once a month, no more than about two hours," Helbling said. "The court clerk would call maybe twice during the month for something. That was about it."
The current court calendar runs Monday through Friday. Mondays and Fridays are in-custody days, dealing with people placed in jail before and after the weekend.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are trial days. The third Thursday of the month is traffic court, usually running from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Wednesday is criminal court, beginning at 12:30 p.m. and running to around 6 p.m. Crimes up to a gross misdemeanor will come before the judge.
Over the years the rapid growth of Bonney Lake has meant an increase in both the numbers and severity of crime.
"The infractions are much more severe now," Helbling said. "The worst we saw 10 years ago was drunk driving, speeding, that sort of thing. Now there's assault, drugs, domestic violence, driving with licenses suspended.
The Bonney Lake Court may be a sign of the times, but an observer sees a smooth process as people come forward with their stories and face the judge.
A defendant who is reaching the end of the judge's patience gets a stern lecture and a clear message what coming before him again will mean.
"You're going to have one big problem if you don't get your community service done," Helbling instructed one defendant. "You're not going to have to worry about community service next time. It will be 90 days in jail."
A good fit
The path that lead to the bench and the study of law came early for Helbling.
"I can remember I was a little kid, about 7 years old," Helbling said. "I was taught by the good sisters in a Catholic school. This one sister asked me what I wanted to be and I said a lawyer. I don't know why."
Raised in Tacoma by his mother who worked in a laundry for 33 years bringing up her three boys, Helbling is no silver-spoon lawyer. He was the first in his family to earn a law degree.
Graduating from Bellarmine Preparatory School in 1957, he worked at Boeing and West Coast Grocery to put himself through University of Puget Sound. His sophomore year he worked so many hours he couldn't carry enough credits and was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1961.
Helbling came back from a two year hitch in the Army and returned to UPS, graduating with a business degree in 1966. He worked for three more years at West Coast Grocery to earn the money for law school at Gonzaga University in Spokane. He graduated in 1973.
He practiced law in this area over the next 15 years. In 1988 a car-pool friend from his Boeing days called. It was Carl Whisler, the mayor of Bonney Lake.
Whisler asked if Helbling might like to try on the robes for Bonney Lake, and it has been a good fit ever since.
The wheels of justice
The volume of cases, charges and paperwork facing the court is daunting, and the judge makes it clear his staff is the critical key that keeps the wheels of justice turning.
"Kathy (Seymour) has been with me for 15 years," Helbling said. "Geri (Resch) and Kathy have everything right there and my fingertips. They're usually ahead of me. Don't let any judge tell you they run their court. Kathy, Geri, Amber (Nicolich) and Pat (Donaldson), they're the ones that keep it running."
Working beside the Judge is Kathy Seymour, court administrator, Geri Resch, court clerk II, Amber Nicolich, court clerk I and Pat Donaldson, court clerk.
Dennis Box can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org