Politics & Government

Updated: Supreme Court candidates refusing 'ethics' pledge

Fewer than half of this year's Supreme Court and state appeals court candidates have agreed to abide by an "ethical" campaigns pledge. Two sitting justices — conservative Jim Johnson and libertarian Richard Sanders — both ignored requests to sign, and so did Stan Rumbaugh, Johnson's challenger, and Bryan Chushkoff, one of Sanders' challengers.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen signed before it was clear she would have no campaign opponent. Sanders' second challenger, Charlie Wiggins, also signed it.

The pledge is the product of the nonpartisan Washington Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns, which came into being two years after Washington's 2006 Supreme Court races were contorted by an avalanche of $2 million in independent expenditures. Here is the committee's 2010 findings.

First some background: Attacks in the 2006 judicial campaigns included hard-hitting television ads funded by the conservative Building Industry Association of Washington. The ads painted the sitting chief justice at the time, Gerry Alexander, as too old for the job and accused him of looking the other way on a colleague’s drunk driving.

Other ads funded by liberal groups that year painted Alexander’s challenger, property-rights lawyer John Groen, as a scary, right-wing extremist.

Fast forward to 2010: Semi-retired state appeals court judge William Baker of Everett, who leads the ethical-campaigns group, said this week he was disappointed so few candidates signed the pledges this time around – after all but one candidate (a BIAW-backed appeals-court challenger) signed it in 2008. (Correction: The BIAW-backed candidate actually signed the pledge but declined to disavow third-party ads.)

The 7 of 16 judicial candidates who signed the pledge in effect agreed to speak truthfully about court cases and repudiate ads by their own campaigns or third-party groups that attack other candidates personally. Here is the pledge:

I believe judicial candidates should aspire to the highest ethical standards to promote public trust and confidence in the fairness and impartiality of Washington courts. To that end, I will not take any action during the campaign which will harm the public faith in the integrity of the judicial system in Washington and hereby pledge that, as a candidate: I will conduct myself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary and participate in thoughtful discourse in judicial forums and with the media. I will publicly disavow advertisements that impugn the dignity, integrity, or independence of a candidate and will use my best efforts to have such advertising modified or discontinued if requested by the Washington Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns. I will not engage in activities that erode public trust and confidence in the dignity, integrity, or independence of the judiciary. I will also submit copies of this fully executed pledge to my campaign committee and key supporters.

Justice Sanders said in a telephone interview Friday that the ethics pledge is not necessary, because candidates already must live by rules enforced by the state Bar Association or the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Sanders said he also objects to having a self-appointed group stand in judgment of candidates. He also didn’t like that the pledge asks a candidate to denounce the speech of others – in this case the ads of an independent expenditure group.

In the lead-up to Tuesday's primary election, Sanders already is fending off accusations from Wiggins – a former appeals-court judge – that he failed to uphold ethical standards on the high court. Sanders was admonished in 2005 over visits he had made to a sex-offender facility at a time the court was hearing some offenders' cases.

Sanders says Wiggins is now lying in radio ads by saying he was “reprimanded” – a stronger sanction – rather than "admonished." (Update: As I point out in a subsequent post, Wiggins says he changed the ad soon after Sanders brought the issue to him.)

Justice Johnson also is the target of independent ads this year that accuse him of being "in the pocket" of special corporate interests, including tobacco companies. Opponent Rumbaugh, a trial lawyer, has made similar accusations against Johnson, saying he rules on the side of builders who gave heavily to his previous campaigns.

Asked why they rejected the pledge, Johnson's manager Alex Hays says they think "it is far more important to take deceptions, and Stan Rumbagh's deceptions, directly to the voters."

In a campaign that hasn't been kind or gentle from the outset, Hays said Rumbagh exaggerated his qualifications to be judge (he lacks real appellate court experience). He said Rumbaugh also made false claims in the state voter pamphlet about Johnson receiving $1 million in support from special interests. That number can only be reached by lumping together contributions from numerous sources for multiple campaigns (this is Johnson’s third run for office), which is misleading, according to Hays.

"Rumbaugh has lied," Hays says.

Johnson is getting interesting allies this time around. His past campaigns in 2002 and 2004 were heavily backed by the BIAW (which turned its considerable campaign wrath on Justice Alexander in 2006).

Justice Alexander now is defending Johnson against what he sees as new attacks by special interests from the left – never mind that they are the same interests that attacked his 2006 challenger, Groen.

Those interests are the Service Employees International Union, Washington Education Association, trial lawyer and others that have put money into FairPAC, a political committee that has in turn forwarded large donations to Impartial Justice – the committee that has spent about $266,000 against Johnson. Some of those same groups also are donating directly to the campaign of Rumbaugh.

Hays released a statement from Alexander recently that warned of the effects of the independent spending. The statement noted that the groups spending the money have had recent cases before the court or have cases pending.

"You don’t need to be a judge to see danger in an attack ad funded by powerful interests that have business before the court," Alexander said. "These ads are unfair and an attack against judicial independence. Hands off our state Supreme Court."

I also talked to Alexander by phone. He said he thinks Judge Baker's pledge committee is a good idea, as long as the approach is voluntary. "I favor high ethical standards in elections, particularly judicial elections," he said.

Alexander said there is no evidence Johnson's legal positions are beholden to donors. "I found him to be an ethical judge during his time on the court. He's performed his duties as a Supreme Court judge in an admirable fashion," Alexander said.

Judge Baker's ethics committee accepts complaints about campaign misconduct and investigates those complaints. But none of the candidates or their supporters has filed any with the committee this year. Baker said that after so many candidates refused to sign the pledge, it might be hypocritical for them to file a complaint.

Separate from the pledges, the Supreme Court itself also is looking into the effects of campaign contributions on the court system's integrity. The American Bar Association recently adopted new recusal guidelines for judges in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with the influence of coal-industry donations to justices sitting on cases that benefited the company.

And Alexander said he set up a task force that is considering what kind of recusal-rule changes the state Supreme Court should put in place as a result. At issue is whether a justice should or must step aside from hearing a case if he or she has received campaign donations from one of the interested parties.

More specifically, the court must decide if the recusals should be voluntary and what amount of campaign spending – direct or indirect – should trigger the action.