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Bring on a debate this fall

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 Voter alert: You'll be receiving your primary-election ballot in the mail late this week or early next, and it will include two statewide races that could be decided now, rather than in November.

Two incumbent state Supreme Court justices face challenges this year -- first-termer Jim Johnson and 14-year Justice Richard Sanders. State law says that any candidate in a statewide, nonpartisan race who receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary advances to the November ballot unopposed.

Since Johnson faces a single challenger, his race is all but certain to be decided in the Aug. 17 primary. Two candidates are challenging Sanders, so a fall race for that seat is possible.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen is also running this year, but didn't draw a challenger.

We'd like to see the libertarian Sanders, a controversial but valuable member of the court, engage in a spirited contest with his strongest challenger, who we believe to be Bainbridge Island attorney Charlie Wiggins. An enlightening debate could ensue, spotlighting issues such as the rights of crime victims vs. the rights of the accused.

Sanders has long been criticized by prosecutors and police for being too deferential to criminals. He defends his record vigorously, citing individual rights as a constitutional principle that shouldn't be compromised.

Wiggins is a strong advocate for reforming some of the rules that govern justices, another worthy topic of debate. For example, he favors public financing of judicial campaigns, and adopting stricter court rules about when justices should recuse from a case because of a potential conflict of interest.

Also challenging Sanders is Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff, who entered the race relatively late and isn't trying to raise money. He appears well-qualified, but we're more impressed by Wiggins' broad experience, including an 18-month stint as a state Court of Appeals judge and service as a disciplinary hearing officer for the state Bar Association.

In the other contested race, we endorse the conservative-leaning Johnson, who has been a prolific writer of well-reasoned opinions in his first six-year term. His background before joining the court included two decades working as an assistant state attorney general, first for the Fish and Wildlife Division, then working on legal services for 25 agencies and major litigation involving the state. Later, in private practice, he showed his independence from party politics by writing the initiative that established Washington's popular top-two primary, which has since been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Johnson's challenger is Tacoma attorney Stan Rumbaugh, who has been in private practice for 30 years and has a strong record of volunteer public service. He has no direct judicial experience, though, and hasn't made a compelling case for unseating Johnson.

For more information on these and other judicial races, go to, P.O. Box 1460, Silverdale, WA  98383
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