Lots of questions linger about justices' racial stance

November 5, 2010 

The constant barrage of political ads that filled the airwaves and our mailboxes has ceased for a while, only to return much quicker than most of us would like.

The political horse race, complete with endless numerical scenarios of how the electorate turned the House from blue to red, will give way to speculation about 2012.

And, as is true in most judicial races, Justice Richard Sanders led in the early vote count to secure a fourth term on the bench despite a spirited challenge from his opponent, former appellate court judge Charlie Wiggins. In the end, Justice Sanders’ possible victory probably had more to do with name recognition than his legal prowess. The judicial branch, after all, is our state’s most stable branch of government even with the increase of contested races.

Justice Sanders, who unlike some of his fellow justices who manage to avoid controversy, finds himself a notable exception to that rule. Some may point to the fact that he is unabashedly more conservative than his colleagues, and this leaves him open to more criticism in a state whose majority finds themselves comfortably to the left.

The arguable truth of how his perceived political ideology contributes to the criticism of him by the public is, however, only part of the equation. The other part is found in how it is expressed — not from the bench or in one of his famous and fiery dissents, but in what he says when his robe is off.

As numerous media outlets have already reported, during an Oct. 7 court meeting both Justices Sanders and Jim Johnson, who, unlike Sanders, ran unopposed in the general election having defeated an opponent in the primary, allegedly disputed that racial bias plays a role in the justice system and went on further to say that African Americans are overrepresented in our penal system because they commit more crimes.

It’s not like Sanders’ and Johnson’s naive viewpoints aren’t shared by others. During a meeting I attended with Spokane’s police chief some years ago, when asked about the racial profiling by law enforcement, she passionately denied its existence and summarily dismissed the countless studies proving otherwise.

I’ve often wondered why some people in law enforcement and the judiciary share the opinions of both Sanders and Johnson when there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

I’m sure there is some complex sociological reason to explain their thinking; however, I wonder whether both Sanders and Johnson have succumbed to the seduction that a life in the legal profession sometimes brings when the web of legal theory and jurisprudence suffocates reality.

I wonder when the last time Sanders and Johnson read the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education for more than just an intellectual exercise, and instead reflected on how it has affected so many lives by destroying the bonds of segregation.

I also wonder whether Sanders and Johnson have forgotten that long after the legal arguments are over and the opinions are written, real people are affected more tangibly than mere legal precedence.

To all of these wonderings, I can only hope they are in the affirmative, as justice, equality and those who are still in need of it still remain.

The voters have spoken. Apparently Sanders and Johnson both have another 6 years to turn my wondering into reality.

Shawn Murinko, who works for the state of Washington as an ADA compliance officer, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. Murinko, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, can be reached at smurinko@comcast.net.

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