Justice Steven C. Gonzalez was sworn in as the newest state Supreme Court justice Monday, a historic move that diversifies the court’s makeup. Gonzalez also adds a strong voice for improving the public’s access to the costly justice system.
In a standing-room-only ceremony also attended by his wife, mother and sister at the Temple of Justice, Gonzalez won praise for his intellect and past work making the court system more available to the poor and disabled.
“I hope it’s meaningful for everyone – as meaningful for Latinos as it is for whites, as it is for blacks or Indians or Asians to see diversity on the court,’’ said Gonzalez, who has Mexican ancestry on his father’s side and has Eastern European Jewish roots “and a little Yankee” on his mother’s side. “It’s just not Latinos who are proud to have diversity on the court. I think all of us care about that.”
Judge Mary Yu worked alongside Gonzalez on the King County Superior Court and called the appointment an “extraordinary moment in our community.’’ And although her legal colleague might be assumed to have a liberal leaning, Yu said he will “exercise restraint.’’
Gonzalez becomes the second Latino on the high court in Washington state history, following former Justice Charles Z. Smith, who was often identified as the first black justice but who also has Cuban ancestors.
“This is the first Mexican American we have on the court,” Smith said after the ceremony. “It is not as significant on an individual basis as it is in recognizing the cultural diversity on the court.’’
Gonzalez must run for re-election this summer and fall for a full six-year term. He has a campaign manager, Jake Faleschini, and well-known Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman is advising them.
In comments to reporters shortly after he was sworn in, Gonzalez said his team is working on a campaign and that while he is preparing for an opponent he would be quite happy not to get one.
The appointment by Gov. Chris Gregoire won plenty of praise all around – from retired Justice Gerry Alexander, who hit the mandatory retirement age of 75 last year and created the court opening for Gonzalez, to Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, Gregoire and public defenders.
Many talked about his past work on encouraging access to courts as former chairman of Washington State Access to Justice Board.
“Part of access to justice is ensuring that the constitutional right to indigent defense in criminal cases is observed,” said Joanne Moore, director of the state Office of Public Defense, “So we are very excited about Justice Gonzalez’ appointment, because he is devoted to equal justice under the law.”
Asked what he hopes to accomplish now, Gonzalez said: “I think it’s fundamental for our democracy that everyone has confidence in the outcomes of the court. That each will be treated fairly, will have a chance to be heard, and keeping that promise is really the most important work of the court aside from the actual cases that we hear.’’
But he also wants to see changes in the system to take away barriers that poorer Americans often face when trying to get justice in the civil courts. He favors simpler court rules and simpler court forms and to avoid adding fees to court filings that raise the barriers to access.
Gonzalez said court forms can be simplified in family law, especially where more members of the public tend to represent themselves in court. Gonzalez said the access board has a process under way to convert court forms “into plain language” that ultimately is to be converted to “a smart form.”
The smart form eventually can be put online and downloaded by the public. Like the TurboTax online guides that help a taxpayer navigate the rules of the IRS, the forms would help the user fill them out, Gonzalez said.
He also said it is tempting during tough fiscal times to impose user fees on courts to pay for its services. “I just think that is a mistake. Once we impose the fees, it is very hard to get rid of them,” Gonzalez said. “It’s like an ambulance or the police – you shouldn’t have to pay when you call them. It is part of our fundamental system of justice.’’
Gonzalez earned his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, has won several judge-of-the-year awards including one from the state Bar Association, and speaks Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.