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Tacoma News Tribune




For state Supreme Court: Johnson, Sanders, Wiggins

The News Tribune

Sunday, July 18, 2010 — Two Washington Supreme Court races offer the most important decisions on the August primary ballot.

Not only will those contests produce two of the nine leaders of the third branch of government, the final decisions could be made Aug. 17. Under the curious rules that govern judicial elections in this state, a supreme court candidate who wins an outright majority in the primary is effectively elected immediately.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, running for re-election in Position 5, drew no challenger this year and wins another term by default.

Because only two lawyers are running for Position 1, that race will be settled in August. The two are Stan Rumbaugh, a respected Tacoma attorney, and sitting Justice Jim Johnson.

Both candidates have the intellect and experience the job demands. Rumbaugh is not only a successful attorney, he has also contributed much to Pierce County in volunteer leadership roles – chairing, for example, the boards of Bates Technical College and the Tacoma Housing Authority.

If elected, Rumbaugh would likely lean more to the left than Johnson.

Johnson – an advocate for property rights and anti-tax initiatives in private practice – has turned out to be a mainstream judicial conservative. He is often sympathetic to police and prosecution, for example, in criminal justice cases.

We recommend Johnson’s re-election. He’s been a useful addition to the court, where his approach makes an important contribution to what should be a healthy mix of opinion.

The three-way race for Position 6 is uncommonly interesting; it is a referendum on Justice Richard Sanders, the court’s most distinctive and controversial jurist.

Sanders is a thorough-going libertarian who reaches straight for the federal and state constitutions in arguing cases. This can be inspiring. It can also be exasperating when he reaches over, around and under key legal precedents to take the side of the individual against the state.

A good example is Sanders’ recent lone dissent in State v. Pugh, a case in which the court affirmed the conviction of a wife-beater.

Timothy Pugh had challenged the prosecution’s use of a 911 call in which his wife had pleaded for police assistance, saying, “He’s beating me up ...” He argued that he’d been denied his right to confront a witness against him face to face – but the courts for generations have distinguished calls for police assistance from after-the-fact witness testimony.

Sanders didn’t think much of this distinction. “What is there about ‘face to face’ the majority doesn’t understand?” he wrote.

If you like this kind of libertarian fundamentalism, Sanders is your man. We think he exhibits extremism and poor judgment at times, yet we’ve endorsed him in the past because he forces the other justices to deal with fundamental constitutional issues.

He is challenged this year by Bryan Chushcoff, the presiding judge of Pierce County’s Superior Court, and Charlie Wiggins, an immensely experienced Bainbridge Island lawyer and former Court of Appeals judge.

Wiggins has a superb legal mind and a much more mainstream approach to the law than Sanders. He’s won endorsements from prosecutors and many police groups that don’t like Sanders’ ambivalence toward law enforcement.

A runoff between Wiggins and Sanders could give voters a great debate on judicial philosophy and the role of the supreme court. We endorse both in the August primary., P.O. Box 1460, Silverdale, WA  98383
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