As he looked around the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room last June, Lonny Suko had not lost sight of how he got there.
At age 59, he had gone east to face questions about his ability to replace U.S. District Court judge William Fremming Nielson, who took senior status.
Did Suko have the personal and professional mettle to serve as judge for the Eastern District of Washington state?
His answer came July 15, when the Senate confirmed President Bush’s nomination of him by a 94-0 vote.
The trip to Washington D.C., a venture backed by the area’s Congressional delegation, capped what was a “tremendously exciting year,” he says.
For Suko, a 1965 political science graduate of Washington State University and a 1968 University of Idaho Law School graduate, the judiciary committee was “awe inspiring.” The judicial presence he had honed while serving as a federal magistrate in Yakima since 1995 enabled him to maintain his composure, but Suko admits to experiencing a case of intestinal gymnastics.
The son of a tractor mechanic and Ford auto dealer in Odessa, he marvels at the opportunity his confirmation hearing represented.
“Here’s a kid from Odessa: ‘What am I doing here?’ ” he recalls thinking. “It’s a very humbling and moving experience. When I walked out of the room, I asked my wife [Marsha], ‘What did I say?’ ”
Aside from a one-year law-clerk stint with federal Judge Charles Powell in Spokane, Suko has spent his entire legal career in Yakima. It was Powell who steered him to Yakima, where he worked with the Lyon, Beaulaurier and Aaron law firm for 26 years, developing a reputation as a skilled mediator. He worked as a part-time federal magistrate from 1971 to 1991.
He represented many central Washington school districts in all aspects of education law.
Suko’s rise to judicial prominence doesn’t surprise Keith Schafer, a longtime friend and Odessa farmer who also graduated from WSU.
So conscientious was Suko while growing up that a neighbor, Henry Michaelsen, often referred to him as “the judge,” Schafer says. “He was pretty serious and studious.”
That continued at WSU.
“You could set your clock by his study habits,” Schafer says.
Suko has never forgotten his humble beginnings-a perspective forged in a dawn-till-dusk farming community where the streets had no names or numbers and people left their doors unlocked, says Schafer, who lives within a stone’s throw of the old Suko family home.
“It was a great place to grow up,” says Suko, recalling how the community 75 miles from Spokane had three grocery stores, three car dealerships, two clothing stores, and about a half-dozen doctors and dentists.
His time at WSU was memorable as well.
Political science professors Steven Mitchell and H. Paul Castleberry and history professors Howard Payne and Herb Wood left an indelible mark, Suko says.
“I look back with great pride on my years at Washington State University. . . . It opened doors and worlds to me that I never would have had an opportunity to explore.”
Suko has maintained strong ties with the University. The Phi Beta Kappa honors graduate continues to serve on the College of Liberal Arts advisory board. Marsha Suko, also a WSU graduate with a master’s degree in guidance counseling, has served on numerous WSU advisory boards.
As a federal judge, Suko will have to scale back his civic involvement. Specifically, political and fund-raising activities are off limits, he says.
Some things won’t change, however. Schedule permitting, Suko says he will swap his judicial robe for Cougar attire as he and his wife take their seats in Martin Stadium this fall.
“I don’t consider that political. That’s a religious meeting,” he says.