Politics & Government

Washington Supreme Court justice criticized for speech to powerful teachers union

New Washington state Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu is applauded by current court members behind as she acknowledges the gallery after being sworn in to the bench Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in Olympia.
New Washington state Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu is applauded by current court members behind as she acknowledges the gallery after being sworn in to the bench Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in Olympia. AP file photo

State Supreme Court Justice Mary I. Yu ignited a debate over proper judicial conduct and the appearance of impartiality this week after speaking at a political event in Spokane hosted by the state teachers union.

Yu’s Saturday speech drew the ire of conservative lawmakers, who said her attendance showed bias toward the powerful Washington Education Association ahead of a case in which the high court will decide if the the state’s fledgling charter school system is legal.

State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, demanded Yu recuse herself from the matter. The WEA is one party in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of charter schools. The case has a hearing May 17.

In a phone interview with The News Tribune on Wednesday, Yu dismissed questions of her ethics and said she would not recuse herself.

Yu said the WEA made it clear to the crowd she was not commenting on any pending or potential future cases. She said she was at the Spokane gathering simply to foster public discussion and to promote her effort to get judges into K-12 schools to teach about the legal system.

Yu also said she was already in Spokane for an unrelated matter and did not travel from Western Washington specifically for the event — an annual gathering that often hosts speakers.

“There was no question I had an agenda and that was I want (teachers) to invite judges into the classroom,” Yu said.

mary yu
Washington state Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu Courtesy Photo Washington Supreme Court

Rich Wood, spokesman for the WEA, said Yu also told the crowd about her path to becoming a Supreme Court Justice and the role that education played in her life. Wood said no video or audio of the speech was available for The News Tribune and The Olympian to review.

Whether Yu officially ran aground of the code of conduct that governs the judicial system is unclear.

Reiko Callner, the executive director for the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct said she wouldn't make a judgment on Yu's speech without knowing all of the facts of the situation and said the agency does not confirm or deny if they are investigating judges.

Callner did offer some general rules to follow.

Judges aren’t allowed to talk about pending cases, make pledges about how they’re going to rule or telegraph their position on a case through a “nudge nudge, wink wink” speech, Callner said. Yu said she did none of those things.

Judges are also “expressly allowed” to attend partisan political events while campaigning and are generally encouraged to “educate people about the law” in public, Callner said.

At the same time, Callner said she could see how someone could want a judge to stay “100 miles away from an interested party” before ruling on a case.

A similar situation from the past might offer clues on how judges should operate in such circumstances. Former Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders faced an onslaught of criticism and an investigation in 1997 after he attended an anti-abortion rally at the Capitol an hour after he was sworn into office.

Sanders was holding a red rose and made a one-minute speech in which he thanked supporters in the group and said, according to news reports: “Nothing is, nor should be, more fundamental in our legal system than the preservation and protection of innocent human life.”

The judicial conduct commission at the time found Sanders had violated its ethics code, although the decision was later reversed by the state Supreme Court. The high court ruled that restricting free speech protections for judges requires “clear and convincing evidence of speech or conduct that casts doubt on a judge's integrity, independence, or impartiality.”

Sanders’ “brief appearance” at the anti-abortion rally did not break that threshold, according to the written ruling.

Where the appearance at the rally did hurt Sanders: the court of public opinion.

Many people at the time, including political opponents, criticized his actions as improper and harmful to the judiciary. The uproar drew national attention.

Baumgartner, the state lawmaker who called for Yu to recuse herself, told The News Tribune and The Olympian that Yu’s speech “does not give the appearance of fairness.”

A fierce critic of public-sector unions, Baumgartner noted Yu received a $2,000 donation from the WEA in her 2016 election bid. Yu also benefited from more than $100,000 in independent spending on her behalf through two political action committees funded in part by the WEA.

The two other Supreme Court candidates who won election in 2016 — Barbara Madsen and Charlie Wiggins — received similar individual donations and independent spending from the WEA.

“We expect the judges of this state to look at cases fairly and impartially, and it’s very troubling that Justice Yu will be potentially judging a case where WEA is suing to block minority students and others from being able to access charter schools,” Baumgartner said. He was the ranking Republican on the Senate's Labor and Commerce Committee in 2018, although he is not seeking re-election this year.

State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, who has been a top Republican on labor issues in the House for years, also condemned Yu's appearance at the WEA event. He said on Twitter that Yu should recuse herself and that the speech "tarnishes her impartiality."

Yu's speech was first publicized by the Washington Policy Center, a conservative organization that supports charter schools, following posts on Twitter about it from teacher groups.

Yu rejected the notion that the campaign spending and her speech at the Spokane event give an appearance she is in the pocket of the union. She said she’s not currently soliciting money for her eventual re-election effort in 2022 and was not trying to curry favor.

Yu also said she attends public events between 10 and 15 times a month, and that any one of those could be interpreted as political. She said they’re still valuable affairs meant to educate the public and promote justice, and they don’t detract from her impartiality.

“Everything could have, if you will, a political slant ...," Yu said. “I don’t talk about cases, and yet I think it’s important that a justice be accessible and available to those individuals as well.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826 @walkerorenstein