For a Washington state Supreme Court justice, Mary Yu showed a surprising lack of political savvy when she agreed to speak to a teacher union’s political event late last month in Spokane.
The same Washington Education Association group gave to Yu's 2016 campaign and also has a May 17 hearing before the high court on a challenge to the state's latest charter-schools law.
Though Yu is regarded as a brilliant lawyer, her political acumen is less distinguished.
Yu says she did not discuss any pending Supreme Court cases. And speaking before a group whose case is in the offing does not on its face create a conflict of interest for a judge, according to the state Judicial Conduct Commission, which oversees the actions of judges.
In an interview last week with reporter Walker Orenstein of The Olympian and News Tribune, Yu said she will not step aside from hearing the charter schools case, which Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner says she should do.
It is still possible the judicial commission would look into Yu's action. The body investigates allegations of misconduct that bring the impartiality of the state judiciary into question, and it can impose sanctions, which it did in the case of Justice Richard Sanders in 1996.
Though Sanders had spoken at an anti-abortion group's rally about the sanctity of human life and carried a red rose in sympathy with other pro-life participants, the Supreme Court overturned the commission's reprimand and sanctions for Sanders, citing free-speech grounds.
Rich Wood of the WEA noted that Yu’s remarks were about the role education played in her life, letting her rise to the high court. That is a legitimate subject for a judge to talk about and ordinarily would be fine.
But the WEA is a politically active organization and has long battled against using tax dollars to support charter schools that are not subject to the same regulation as public schools.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, appointed Yu to the court in May 2014, and WEA’s political action arm gave $2,000 to Yu’s election campaign in 2016. WEA also helped fund two independent expenditure groups that spent in favor of all three incumbents seeking reelection to the high court that year.
We endorsed Yu in 2016. We think she should be able to judge cases on their merits.
But here she should have known better — particularly in our rabidly politicized world — than to hand ammunition to critics.
Justice Yu could turn this situation to her advantage by sending a clear message about avoiding even an appearance of conflict by stepping aside from this one case.