July 28, 2010 — Let’s state up front that Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders is exasperating, which is why the race for Position 6 on the Washington state Supreme Court is so interesting.
If he were vying for an ethics position, he would be a questionable candidate. He was officially admonished in 2005 for touring the McNeil Island facility for sexual predators when some of the inmates had open cases. He failed to disclose his personal interest in a public records case, which caused the Supreme Court to withdraw an important ruling. Long ago, he showed up at an anti-abortion rally.
If he were vying for a diplomat’s position, he would be a questionable candidate. At a black-tie dinner hosted by the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C., he made a scene by yelling “tyrant” at then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
If his libertarian viewpoint represented the majority opinion of the court, we would balk at an endorsement. But his views are iconoclastic, and his contributions are unique. His passionate dissents force the other justices to dig deeper as they research and write their rulings. He makes sure that the state Constitution is represented. He zealously defends individual rights.
Though he is often in the minority – and sometimes alone – he helps strengthen the rulings that will ultimately affect society. He bucks conservatives on tough-on-crime cases. He frustrates liberals when it comes to regulations. He should delight anyone who wants open government.
He is labeled as “pro-crime” by some, but that misses the point. He is guarding individual rights, which are quite expansive under the state Constitution. He is labeled “pro-business” by others, but what he’s really doing is guarding property rights.
We don’t always agree with him, but we know he is taking a principled stand.
He has two opponents, Charles Wiggins, a former Court of Appeals judge, and Bryan Chuschcoff, a Pierce County Superior Court judge. Both point to Sanders’ tendency to side with criminal defendants. Both point to his lapses outside the court. But neither would add an important dynamic to the nine-person panel. They would most likely echo the views that already enjoy the support of the majority of the court. Neither is likely to drift from the mainstream.
Even in dissent, it is important for the court to have a voice that reflects a different way of thinking. This serves to sharpen the opinions that will rule the day. No doubt, Sanders is exasperating, but he is also smart, articulate and performs an important role. The court would be weaker without him.
For this reason, he has earned another term on the bench.
October 29, 2010 — Only one of the eight Spokane County District Court judges faces a challenger this year, Judge Debra Hayes. So it seems the complaints and frustrations with the courts are being filtered through this race.
Challenger Timothy Note is a respected criminal defense attorney with his own practice. He says the court isn’t transparent enough and that it does not have a sufficient customer-service focus. He complains of having to hunt for judges at times, especially late in the afternoon, saying they can be difficult to find.
We noted in a recent editorial that courts shouldn’t be exempt from the state Public Records Act and that it shouldn’t be difficult for the public to discern whether judges are in attendance on a particular day. When Hayes’ attendance records were sought, the court administrator eventually turned over a summary of days off prepared by the judge herself. That isn’t sufficient, because it isn’t verifiable. We also agree that courts ought to be organized in a user-friendly way.
However, we’ve also noted that Hayes’ absences appeared to be for good reasons. Her son died of an overdose, and she had some health problems.
When asked for specific reasons why Hayes should be voted out of office, Note focused on her courtroom demeanor. He doesn’t like the way she treats attorneys and clients. He also points to the fact that she is the subject of the most affidavits to get cases transferred to other judges. But there can be several explanations for this, one being that she takes a fairly hard line on drunken driving cases.
The Spokane County Bar Association evaluated both candidates in five areas, with one of them being judicial temperament. Note was rated higher in that category but by a minuscule margin. Overall, Hayes was rated "well qualified" and Note was rated "qualified." The largest gap in the Bar Poll could be found under "relevant legal experience." Hayes also tops Note in "legal ability."
One area of disagreement is on the issue of judges accepting plea deals. Defense attorneys and prosecutors routinely hammer out agreements to avoid time-consuming trials. Typically, judges accept them. Without plea deals, court dockets would be horribly jammed. Hayes, however, isn’t afraid to assert her discretion if she thinks the deal isn’t proper. We’ve seen no evidence that she does this so often that it has become a problem.
We support a smooth-running court system, but we don’t think that should become an end in itself. Courts are also the place to administer justice, and at times that can be inconvenient to the players involved.
Note has some valid complaints about District Court in general, but that’s not the same as saying he would make a better judge than Hayes. She is more experienced and is rated higher. We think voters should keep her.
VotingforJudges.org, P.O. Box 1460, Silverdale, WA
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