Newspaper un-endorses Supreme Court Justice Sanders after remark

October 25, 2010 

The Seattle Times yesterday pulled the unusual move of un-endorsing a candidate - in this case, incumbent Justice Richard Sanders.

The move comes after Sanders and Justice Jim Johnson made comments about African American incarceration rates that offended fellow attendees of a recent court meeting.

Here's the Times' unendorsement:

STATE Supreme Court justices Richard Sanders and James Johnson inflamed racial tensions with their remarks that African Americans are overrepresented in the state prison system because they commit more crimes.

How disappointing these two legal minds were unable to offer more thoughtful, nuanced views about racial disparities in the criminal-justice system.

African Americans make up 4 percent of the state population and 20 percent of state prisoners. An impressive body of evidence links the disproportionate numbers to drug-enforcement policies, poverty and racial biases throughout society.

Sanders and Johnson have worked in the judicial system long enough to be informed by these disparities and to know better. They missed by a wide mark an opportunity to lead a broader and smarter discussion.

This page takes the unusual step of withdrawing its endorsement of Sanders. The Seattle Times now supports lawyer Charlie Wiggins, who was a close call in our primary endorsement. We said then that Wiggins was fully qualified to serve on the bench and be a strong voice pushing back against government. At the time, Sanders' support for state public-disclosure laws cinched his endorsement.

But Sanders' latest remarks fall upon a trash heap of cringe-worthy conduct — the latest for ruling in a public-records case that could have affected a case of his own. In 2008, he called U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey a "tyrant" to his face. Decades ago, Sanders dressed as a Nazi as a Halloween prank.

Johnson has no challenger and thus is assured another term in next month's election. That does not mean he should escape public censure, it just means there is no one else to vote for.

Sanders's and Johnson's remarks stand out for the starkness of their views after lengthy careers in the justice system. The most damaging assessment that can be made is that the people who know the system best were shocked and dismayed by the two justices' comments.

Kitsap County District Court Judge James Riehl, who was present when the justices made their remarks, says his own 28 years as a judge has provided him with an acute awareness of the barriers to equal treatment in the legal system. Justice Debra Stephens told The Times that Johnson used the phrases "you all" or "you people" when he talked about African Americans and crimes, noting the unfortunate phrase may have made blacks in the audience feel accused.

Bottom line, Sanders and Johnson were insensitive, uninformed and way too casual about an important societal issue. Voters should reject Sanders and vote for Wiggins.

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