On September 19, 2022, President Biden nominated Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren to the United States Court District Court for the Eastern District of Washington to the seat vacated by Judge Salvador Mendoza, who was confirmed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in April of 2022. Judge Bjelkengren is a lifetime public servant with extensive experience on the bench – both as an administrative law judge and as a superior court judge. If confirmed, she would be the first woman of color to serve on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington as well as the first Black woman to serve on a federal District Court in the state of Washington.
Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren was born in 1975 in Great Lakes, Illinois. She graduated, cum laude, from Mankato State University, now Minnesota State University. In 2000, she earned her J.D. from Gonzaga University School of Law, where she was the recipient of a diversity scholarship.
Throughout Judge Bjelkengren’s legal career, she has worked exclusively with state agencies and institutions. Judge Bjelkengren became an Assistant Attorney General in the Washington State Office of the Attorney General in Spokane in 2001, where she was assigned to the Licensing and Employment Security Division. In this role, she primarily represented the Department of Licensing in drivers’ license revocation hearings and the Employment Security Department in unemployment benefits cases. In 2003, she began handling dependency, day care licensing, and civil commitment cases in the Department of Social and Health Services. From 2004 to 2013, Judge Bjelkengren was assigned to the Administrative Law Division, where she again represented the Department of Licensing in drivers’ license revocation hearings and the Employment Security Department in unemployment benefits cases. As judicial review coordinator in that division, she handled settlements, reviewed and edited briefs, and advised, mentored, and educated Assistant Attorney Generals across Washington state. During this time, she also represented Big Bend Community College and advised the college on contracts, public records issues, open public meetings, real estate, and employment law.
After spending nearly fifteen years working as an attorney for the state, Judge Bjelkengren became an administrative law judge for the Washington State Office of Administrative Hearings in December 2013. In this role, she presided over hearings involving a wide range of state agencies, including, but not limited to, the Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Labor and Industries. In 2017, she was elevated to serve as a Senior Administrative Law Judge.
Judge Bjelkengren became the first Black woman judge in Eastern Washington when Governor Jay Inslee appointed her to the Spokane County Superior Court to fill a vacancy in May 2019. That fall, she won a special election to complete the term of her predecessor and in 2020, she was elected to a full four-year term on the bench. In both elections, she ran unopposed. As a judge on the Spokane County Superior Court, she hears criminal, civil, domestic, and juvenile cases. Since her original appointment to the Superior Court, she has presided over 130 trials that have gone to verdict. Opinions and orders from Superior Court judges are not published in Washington.
In West Terrace Golf LLC v. City of Spokane, No.17-2-02120-7 (Wash. Sup. Ct. Spokane Cnty. Dec. 2, 2021) plaintiffs alleged that the City of Spokane charged customers outside of city limits almost 200% of what it charged customers within city limits for water from the municipal water system. This disparate treatment, the plaintiffs argued, violated the utility rate standards set forth by a section of Washington state law that requires rates be just, fair, and reasonable. The city argued that municipal water rates were regulated by a different section of Washington code and the state constitution, which only required that the rate be uniform and sufficient to operate. The court ruled in favor of the city, finding that there was no statutory requirement that the water rate be just, fair, and reasonable. Judge Bjelkengren’s decision was appealed. The case is ongoing.
In a divorce case, Deviney v .Deviney, No.20-3-00727-32 (Wash. Sup. Ct Spokane Cnty. May 3, 2021), the respondent purchased real property and an investment account with inherited money. He put this property under both parties’ names during the marriage. In divorce proceedings, community property is divided between the parties while separate property is not divided. All property acquired during a marriage is considered community property except when acquired by inheritance in Washington state. During the proceedings, the petitioner asserted that by putting the purchased property under both spouses’ names, he had transferred the inherited property to her, making it community property rather than separate property. Judge Bjelkengren rejected the petitioner’s argument, finding that title or name on deed is not enough to prove an intent to change property from separate to community. The petitioner appealed this decision, but it was affirmed by the court of appeals.
In State of Washington v. Cardon, No. 20-1-10785-32, 22-1-00933-32 (Wash. Sup. Ct. Spokane Cnty. Aug. 23, 2022), the court had ordered that the defendant not have contact with a certain protected individual. The defendant violated that order, breaking the arm of an individual who attempted to prevent him from reaching the protected individual. While imprisoned on charged of second-degree assault and violation of the no-contact order, he made multiple phone calls to the protected party leading to more charges of violating his no-contact order and tampering with a witness. After a jury found the defendant guilty, he requested a mental health sentencing alternative, which Judge Bjelkengren denied. She found that neither the defendant nor the community would benefit from a mental health sentencing alternative based on the defendant’s refusal to participate in mental health treatment. Ultimately, the defendant was sentenced to 75 months incarceration and 18 months of community custody.
The defendant in State of Washington v. Andersen, No.19-1-10610-32 (Wash. Sup. Ct. Spokane Cnty, Nov. 12, 2021), the defendant was charged with multiple counts of drive-by shooting, murder, and attempted murder. On July 5th, the state alleged, the defendant shot at a property from his vehicle before driving away without causing any injuries. On July 7th, he pulled his car next to another and shot the driver of the other vehicle multiple times, killing her. The defendant moved to sever the charges related to the shooting on July 5th from the charges on July 7th, which Judge Bjelkengren granted after applying factors established by Washington precedent.
In State of Washington v. Gilmore, No. 22-1-00322-32 (Wash. Sup. Ct Spokane Cnty. May 27, 2022), the defendant moved to suppress evidence found by police in an illegal search and seizure. During a traffic stop, law enforcement learned that there was an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for the defendant and subsequently arrested him. Shortly after, the defendant asked an officer to get his cellphone from the passenger seat of the vehicle so that he could notify his boss. While reaching from the driver’s side, the officer lifted a baseball cap that was covering a firearm. The defendant was then read his Miranda rights. The defendant was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm, and at trial he moved to suppress the firearm uncovered by the police office because he had not been advised of his Miranda rights and did not consent to a search of his vehicle beyond the passenger seat. Judge Bjelkengren granted this motion and the state eventually moved to dismiss the case.
The defendant in State of Washington v. Herkimer, No. 19-1-00323-6 (Wash. Sup. Ct. Spokane Cnty. Oct. 31, 2019) was accused of breaking and entering, burglary, and malicious mischief after police followed footprints in the snow from the scene of the crime to the defendant’s car and matched the footprints to the defendant’s shoes. After a jury trial, the defendant was found guilty of all charges. Prior to and during trial, the defendant did not motion to suppress evidence related to the footprints. However, after the jury verdict, the defendant appealed the convictions on a claim of ineffective counsel because his attorney did not move to suppress evidence of the footprints based on an unconstitutional arrest. This appeal was denied, and the convictions were upheld.
Professional Activities and Accolades
Judge Bjelkengren has been a member of the Washington State Superior Court Judges’ Association since her judicial appointment in 2019. She’s served on the Equality and Fairness Committee since 2019. In the past, she also served on the Judicial Ethics Committee, the Washington State Racial Justice Consortium, and the Racial Justice Workgroup. Additionally, Judge Bjelkengren is an active member of the Spokane County Bar Association, where she has been a member of the Diversity Section since 2019, has served on the Volunteer Lawyers Program Advisory Committee since 2021 and was a member of the Systemic Racism Taskforce in 2022. She was also on the Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid Rights to Counsel Technical Advisory Workgroup in 2021. Judge Bjelkengren is a member of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Spokane Valley Kiwanis Club, which is a service organization founded to assist children in need.