Justice Chambers to retire

state supreme court: Move will create opportunity for Tacoma’s Ladenburg, others to seek seat on bench

JORDAN SCHRADER; Staff writerJanuary 15, 2012 

State Supreme Court justice Tom Chambers will step down at the end of his term this year, opening the door for former Pierce County executive John Ladenburg and at least one rival.

King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Hilyer announced Friday he would seek Chambers’ seat. He and Ladenburg have formed committees to raise campaign money, which they can legally begin today.

There’s a third potential candidate who could make the race one to watch, especially considering his history with Ladenburg.

Richard Sanders, who lost his seat in a squeaker in 2010, is also considering a run. Ladenburg was Pierce County prosecutor in 1998 when he called the typically pro-defendant Sanders “the best friend the criminals have in the Supreme Court.”

“John Ladenburg and I are just polar opposites,” Sanders said this month.

STEPPING DOWN

Chambers, 68, told The Olympian that he would not run for a third six-year term. There’s no other job waiting for him, just vacations to the Kentucky Derby, New Orleans and Cuba – and the freedom that comes from shedding judicial robes.

“With this honor comes some burdens, including a loss of some civil liberties,” Chambers said. He said court rules don’t allow him to help his wife with her work in Africa with a foundation. Plus, he has to be more buttoned-up than he’d like.

“People expect you to be a perfect human being and a role model. ... I kind of chafe under all of that, and I’d like to go back to being Tom Chambers.”

NEW CANDIDATE

Hilyer, 60, had auditioned for the job just vacated by retiring Justice Gerry Alexander. Hilyer says he was a finalist, but Gov. Chris Gregoire chose another King County judge, Steven Gonzlez.

Hilyer, a Seattle resident appointed to Superior Court by Gov. Gary Locke in 2000 after stints in the county prosecutor’s office and private practice, said he has piled up endorsements from more than 60 current and former judges, including six former high-court justices.

He touted his work finding efficiencies during the three years he served as presiding judge, including a move to electronic filing of court documents. He resisted then-King County Executive Ron Sims’s budget-cutting plan to close courts along with other government offices 10 days a year, arguing it was unconstitutional, and he says the courtrooms ended up staying open.

“I’ve been a little battle-scarred and battle-tested,” Hilyer said.

The court also added fees for family court to help the budget, something Sanders was quick to point out and which Chambers criticized on his blog as cutting off access to justice. Hilyer said the alternative was laying off essential staff.

OLD FOES

Ladenburg, who announced his candidacy last June, followed up his 14 years as prosecutor with eight more as Pierce County executive, then ran unsuccessfully against Attorney General Rob McKenna.

He gained a reputation for big ideas like building Chambers Bay golf course, and also for a willingness to mix it up in political fights. His combativeness was on display in his remark about Sanders.

Ladenburg said he took flack for the comment, including a state bar complaint, but defended it: “It’s not disrespect if it’s fact,” he said Thursday. “He’s a libertarian, and I respect his views on that.”

Tacoma native Sanders, in 15 years on the court, often sided with the accused or those seeking redress from the government.

“That did not endear me to John,” said Sanders, who now lives on Vashon Island. “The most difficult thing a judge does is stand up for the rights of some unpopular guy.”

Sanders, 66, said the court is losing advocates for individual rights – a group which in his view includes Alexander and Chambers – and he doesn’t see the other candidates following their lead. He calls it a “potential sea change on the court.”

Charlie Wiggins defeated Sanders by just more than 13,000 votes out of nearly 2 million cast after Sanders took heat for disputing that racial discrimination is to blame for the disproportionate number of blacks in prison.

Since his defeat Sanders has continued to work on holdover cases. He has also offered his services as a consultant to lawyers working on Supreme Court cases, he said.

SCHOOLS CASE

Sanders, Ladenburg and Hilyer all watched as the court issued a landmark ruling this month that the state isn’t properly funding basic education.

Whoever wins will likely deal with the issue. The court promised to watch over state lawmakers’ shoulder to make sure they keep their promises to the schools.

Ladenburg said he would have voted with the majority and said in the future, the courts could take the “extraordinary” step of ordering specific actions by the Legislature – though he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

He said his political experience could help the court walk the fine line between upholding the state constitutional mandate for basic education and interfering with a separate branch of government, the Legislature.

Hilyer said the decision was “very well-reasoned and thoughtful” but said it wouldn’t be appropriate to “second guess” the details from the outside.

Sanders also demurred, saying he didn’t know if the state has failed in its duty, but noted that in another case he wrote a dissent arguing the state had failed to properly provide for special education.

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