Washington state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders is no stranger to controversy, and his bid to seek a fourth term has led to an unusually spirited campaign that could extend beyond next month's primary.
Sanders has drawn two opponents, former Court of Appeals Judge Charlie Wiggins and Pierce County Superior Judge Bryan Chushcoff.
It’s not the only Supreme Court race on the Aug. 17 primary ballot, but it’s the only high court race where there’s a good chance that no candidate will draw more than 50 percent and win the race in the primary.
Also up for re-election are Justice Jim Johnson and Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. Madsen is running unopposed in the primary, so she will advance alone to the November ballot. Johnson faces Tacoma attorney Stan Rumbaugh, and the winner of that matchup will also advance unopposed.
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Independent pollster and political scientist Stuart Elway says that with an expected low primary turnout and the relatively low-profile nature of court races, challengers have an uphill battle.
However, Wiggins has raised a competitive amount of money and endorsements from a variety of groups. Chushcoff hasn’t raised any money and says he doesn’t plan to, but his presence could result in neither Sanders nor Wiggins getting more than 50 percent of the vote.
“The conventional wisdom is if someone has the resources to mount a campaign, that could be pretty effective because they’re such low-visibility races,” Elway said. “It’s a real targeted campaign.”
First elected to the Supreme Court in 1995, Sanders is known for his sometimes passionate dissenting opinions, and in past years has drawn fire for controversial actions on and off the bench. Wiggins has wasted little time in attacking Sanders on those fronts.
Last year, the state Supreme Court withdrew a landmark public-records ruling after the losing party, King County, complained that Sanders had a conflict of interest because he didn’t disclose that the ruling affected a public-disclosure lawsuit he filed in Thurston County in 2005 against the state attorney general. Sanders withdrew from the public-records case, although he insists that the cases weren’t similar, and that he was advised by the court’s staff ethics adviser that he didn’t need to recuse himself.
In 2005, Sanders was given an admonishment by the state Judicial Conduct Commission for touring Washington’s sex predator commitment center at McNeil Island while residents had appeals pending.
In 2008, Sanders stood up and yelled “Tyrant!” at then-U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey at a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C., for The Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
Sanders later released a statement saying he was speaking his conscience, and he cited inadequate access to the legal system for detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the importance of the Geneva Conventions.
Sanders calls Wiggins’ criticism of his personal behavior “a campaign of character assassination.”
“I wanted to go into this election talking about legal issues, talking about my record,” he said.
On that point, both Chushcoff and Wiggins point to concerns about Sanders’ judicial philosophy.
Wiggins notes that in cases where the Supreme Court is divided, Sanders votes in favor of the defendant 94 percent of the time.
“By protecting the rights of the accused to this extent, he’s really failing to protect the rights of the public,” Wiggins said.
Sanders takes issue with Wiggins’ figures, noting that they exclude unanimous cases and petitions for review. That said, Sanders is unapologetic for “preserving and protecting our individual rights.”
“If I’m going to stick up for the rights of some criminal, you know I’m going to stick up for the rights of other people,” Sanders said.
Wiggins has raised about $120,000 and secured the endorsements of many prosecuting attorneys, the state Democratic Party, and the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs.
Sanders, a self-described libertarian, has raised nearly $150,000 and has the support of the powerful Building Industry Association of Washington, the state Republican and Libertarian parties, and business groups.
In the other contested race, Johnson, who is seeking his second term, has raised about $82,000. His challenger, Rumbaugh, who has raised nearly $49,000, has secured endorsements from liberal advocacy groups, such as Seattle-based Fuse.
As Wiggins’ does with Sanders, Rumbaugh points to the support that Johnson has received from the BIAW.
“It’s become clear over the last six years that my opponent has danced with the people that brung him,” Rumbaugh said.
BIAW has endorsed both Johnson and Sanders, but they haven’t yet donated money to either campaign, though they have given hundreds of thousands of dollars in prior Supreme Court races.
WASHINGTON STATE SURPREME COURT
Washington State Supreme Court justices James Johnson and Richard Sanders both face challenges in this election cycle.
The state rules for Supreme Court elections are different than the top-two system for other races. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the primary vote, that candidate goes on to the general election ballot alone, subject only to a write-in campaign; otherwise the top two candidates go to the general election.
So in the Position 1 two-person race, the contest essentially will be decided in the primary. In the Position 6 race which has three candidates, the top two vote getters will advance to November unless one of the three attracts more than 50 percent of the primary vote.
Additional information about these and other races is available online from The Olympian at www.theolympian.com/elections. From there, you can connect to the state Voters’ Pamphlet and the TVW Video Voters’ Guide as well as Olympian political editor Brad Shannon’s Politics Blog.
STATE SUPREME COURT, POSITION 1
Occupation: Supreme Court justice
Civic experience: Justice Jim Johnson volunteered for the U.S. Army after graduating from Harvard and served at Fort Lewis during the Vietnam War. He served as Washington state’s first Counsel for the Environment, the Attorney General’s Chief of Special Litigation and argued the U.S. Supreme Court case that secured Washington’s 9th Congressional District. He is a member of the State Grange.
Education: Jim Johnson was admitted to Washington State Bar in 1970. He received his J.D. from the University Of Washington School Of Law and his B.A. in Economics from Harvard in 1967.
Public statement: “Six years ago, Justice Jim Johnson made a simple promise to the people of Washington: he would uphold the law and Constitution as written and never legislate from the bench. Justice Johnson has kept that promise and today he deserves our vote to return to the state Supreme Court. Jim and his wife Kathy live in Olympia, they have two grown daughters. He enjoys hunting, sailing and the opera.”
Civic experience: Tacoma Housing Authority, 1998-present; Bates Technical College Trustee, 2002-present; World Affairs Counsel Tacoma Board, 2003-present; WSTLA Board of Governors, 1996-2006; Planned Parenthood Western Washington, 1999-2004; Centro Latino Ser, 1994-1998; KBTC Television Moderator of South Sound View, periodically 2004-present; Governors Trade Mission to Japan, 2005; Spokesperson Bates TC and Port of Tacoma delegation to Vietnam, 2003; National Association of Housing and Rehabilitation Officials, 2006-07; Tall Ships Tacoma, 2005
Education: Wittenberg University, B.A. 1975; University of London, study abroad, 1973-74; University of Puget Sound, J.D. 1998.
Public statement: “Thirty-one years as a practicing attorney affords me a well refined ability to objectively analyze complex legal and factual issues, and write cogent legal documents reflecting that analysis. Efficiency, diligence and accuracy in decision making are important characteristics I will bring to the bench. Everyone appearing before the Court is entitled to a fair minded, prepared and courteous judicial officer whose decision making is unbiased by personal attitude. I will bring the court these values.”
STATE SUPREME COURT, POSITION 6
Occupation: Superior Court Judge
Civic experience: Criminal Justice Task Force (2002-04, Pierce County Council Committee). Numerous committees for the Superior Court including: Court’s Executive Committee (2002-present; chair, 2009-present), Criminal Procedure Committee (2001; chair, 2002-05), and Civil Case Management/LINX (2004-present). “I speak at legal education events, including the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association and I was a faculty member for the 47th Washington Judicial Conference. I contribute to charitable organizations, such as Paint Tacoma Beautiful, and participate in food/toy drives and fundraising walks.”
Education: Wilson High School, Tacoma, 1970; Bachelor’s degree, Business Administration, University of Washington, 1974; J.D., Law degree, University of Puget Sound, 1977.
Public statement: “As a judge my goal is to deliver justice fairly and efficiently. Washington must be a safe and prosperous place for our families and businesses. With 33 years experience solving legal troubles of every kind, I understand your problems and I share your concerns. I would be honored to build on this service as a Supreme Court Justice. I offer my commitment to impartial justice, my wide-ranging experience and my promise to work hard.”
Occupation: State Supreme Court Justice
Civic experience: “During 15 years on the Supreme Court, I have reached out to open up the workings of the Court to citizens around the state. I frequently lecture and have written many legal articles and opinion pieces explaining our constitutional rights. In addition, I am an Eagle Scout and once played the French horn in the Rose Bowl.”
Education: University of Washington, graduated 1966; J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law, 1969.
Public statement: “A Supreme Court Justice must uphold the highest ethical standards, working to assure that government is open and the rights of citizens are protected. I am consistent: we have rights the government must not violate. I have written the most opinions and dissents of any of the current justices, law review articles and many opinion pieces defending the rights of citizens. I believe this is my job as a justice; to uphold your individual rights.”
Residence: Bainbridge Island
Civic experience: Commissioner, Civil Service Commission of City of Bainbridge Island, 2004-present; Community member, Kitsap Sun Editorial Board, 2006; Campfire Boys and Girls West Sound Board, 1996-99 (board chair, 1998-99); YMCA Indian Guides and Princesses, Bainbridge Island leader, 1998-99. Habitat For Humanity Kitsap County – organized lawyers of Bainbridge Island to pay for and build two homes. Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church, Bainbridge Island – Member of Session of Ruling Elders, 1987-90 and 2009-present.
Education: Princeton University, 1969, B.A., Philosophy, magna cum laude; University of Hawaii, 1972, Masters in Business Administration; Duke University, 1976, J.D., Order of the Coif
Public statement: “Public service has always been an important part of my life, by: providing free legal help to people who cannot afford it; working with Habitat for Humanity; leading our church youth on trips to Tijuana and New Orleans to build homes; devoting hundreds of volunteer hours to protect the public through the lawyer discipline system. I would be honored to devote my full-time efforts to serving as your next Supreme Court justice.”