Politics & Government

New chief justice speaks for equal access to courts

New Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen stepped into her role Monday, putting a spotlight on the advancement of women and minorities in the state court system.

Madsen is the second woman among 55 chief justices who have served in Olympia since statehood, following Barbara Durham in 1995. She was the third female Supreme Court justice in state history when she first joined the court in 1993.

But almost two decades later, Madsen presides over a nine-member court that has four women, and she was the court’s unanimous choice in November to replace Gerry Alexander. Alexander, the longest-serving chief justice in state history at nine years, is staying on the court as an associate justice. He presented Madsen with a gavel crafted from a maple tree that was removed from the Capitol Campus.

“It’s why I ran and what I want to be the benchmark of my tenure – that I opened the judicial branch to people of every color, to every background, of both genders, without any bias or preconceived ideas of how you can do the job. That’s how I see my goal,’’ Madsen, 57, said in a short interview inside the Temple of Justice courtroom after taking the oath of office from Alexander.

Ronald Ward, president of the Washington State Bar Foundation, said courts must provide equal access to justice, stay independent and promote diversity that can match the shifting ethnic-racial makeup of the nation.

“We still have a long ways to go,” Ward said.

The Washington State Minority and Justice Commission found in March 2009 that 14 of 208 district and municipal court judges in Washington, or 7 percent, are minorities, according to data provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts. That compared with 15 of 188, or 8 percent, of superior court judges; and two of 11 court of appeals judges. The federal Census says nearly 16 percent of the state population is nonwhite.

“I chose the speakers to highlight the messages that I think are important. I suppose in a word it’s inclusiveness – making sure that women and people of color get a seat at the table so they can start to influence the decisions that get made,” Madsen said.

The court’s last minority member was Justice Charles Z. Smith, who retired in 2002. Smith said he was pleased to see Madsen’s appointment and said greater participation in the judiciary by minorities is something that has to happen over time through encouragement at all levels of the courts.

Like Alexander, Madsen is a centrist on a panel that leans more to the left than to the right. She is a graduate of the Gonzaga University law school, worked as a prosecutor and got her start in the courts as a Seattle Municipal Court judge. She was the deciding, majority voice in the court’s controversial decision in 2006 that said same-sex couples have no right to marriage under the state constitution.

Madsen said she wants to appoint an internal rules committee to look at ways the Supreme Court might speed up the delivery of its opinions. In light of budget cuts that took almost 20 percent from the courts last year, Madsen also wants to review core missions of the court, eliminate committees that have outlived their usefulness, and deliver what lower courts around the state need.

Madsen stands for re-election this fall and will remain chief justice for a three-year term if voters send her back.