Writings and observations

Toward a Republican majority, in court

Washington’s state executive branch offices aren’t up this year, and Democrats seem likely to retain control of the state legislature. But Republicans are taking serious aim at the third branch: The top of the state judiciary.

Those seats are legally nonpartisan, of course. And one appointed or elected, judges and justices tend to wander in unpredictable ways; something about the atmosphere of a judicial chamber may have an effect on thought processes.

Regardless, Republicans clearly are aiming for what would be in effect – at least the intent – of a close split or a slight majority in practical terms on the Washington Supreme Court. They might not get it, but the effort clearly is there. It would be a move from generally nonpartisan at present to a distinct shift to the right. After the decisions on the governor’s race and other matters, bearing in mind the heat likely soon to erupt over the Defense of Marriage Act, and general in-party agitation against the courts, you can see where the impulse would come from.

Taking this from the top . . .

There are nine members of the Washington Supreme Court: Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, Associate Chief Justice Charles W. Johnson, and Justices Barbara Madsen, Richard Sanders, Bobbe Bridge, Tom Chambers, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst and James M. Johnson.

Here’s some background on them, from their official bios:

Gerry AlexanderGerry Alexander “was first elected to a seat on the Washington Supreme Court in 1994. He joined this state’s highest bench at that time with over two decades of trial and appellate court experience behind him, having served as a judge of the superior court for Thurston and Mason Counties from 1973 through 1984, and as a judge of the Court of Appeals, Division Two, from 1985 through 1994. In the year 2000, Justice Alexander was re-elected to the Supreme Court. Shortly thereafter, his colleagues elected him to a four-year position as chief justice, effective January 8, 2001. Chief Justice Alexander was re-elected chief justice in November 2004 and in his second term as chief justice he became the longest serving chief justice in the state’s history.”

No evidently partisan background. He has come across as a centrist who won and kept the chief’s position because he was most able to woprk with a variety of viewpoints.

Susan OwensSusan Owens “was elected[in 2000] the seventh woman to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court. She joins the Court after serving nineteen years as District Court Judge in Western Clallam County, where she was the County’s senior elected official with five terms. She also served as the Quileute Tribe’s Chief Judge for five years and Chief Judge of the Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe for six plus years.”

No evidently partisan background here, either. A Seattle Weekly review of the court last year suggested that in close criminal cases, she might tend to side a little more with the prosecution than with the defense, but even that is a tough call. With her rural plus tribal background, she seems hard to place firmly on any side of the ideological divide.

Tom ChambersTom Chambers was elected to the court in 2000. “Prior to joining the court he enjoyed a distinguished legal career and earned a reputation as a preeminent trial lawyer. He was awarded the Trial Lawyer of the Year Award in 1989 by the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association and in 1996 by the American Board of Trial Advocates. Justice Chambers served as president of four state-wide lawyer organizations, including the Washington State Bar Association and the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association. He has served on the Board of Governors for the American Trial Lawyers Association, and is a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers.”

Here too, no apparent partisan background. The Weekly analysis said, “He admits that his votes, unsurprisingly, have been in favor of plaintiffs in personal-injury cases and that he’s a swing vote in criminal matters. “If it is a core constitutional right, I’m there to protect it, but if I see it as a hypertechnicality, then I’m not there,” he says. Gay-marriage supporters are optimistic he’ll support them.”

Chambers hasn’t drawn an opponent yet – watch for it – but the other two have.

Facing Alexander: John Groen of Bellevue, one of the best-known property rights litigators in the state, presumably disinclined to view many land use or environmental laws with great favor.

But this is not a purely legal matters: Conventional politics and interest groups enter in as well. In a new report, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that Groen is ” expected to get heavy backing from the politically potent Building Industry Association of Washington. He is a member and past chairman of the BIAW’s legal trust committee, and the association is a client of his Bellevue law firm, Groen, Stephens & Klinge, as are other builder interests.” That should be enough to establish his business-oriented and Republican credentials.

If not, consider that he’s listed as secretary (in a filing from last November, apparently not altered since) of the Constitutional Law PAC, founded by former Republican Senator Slade Gorton and former Republican Attorney General Ken Eikenberry, formed according to one report “to help elect candidates to the Washington State Supreme Court and Washington State Court of Appeals. The Constitutional Law PAC has a right-of-center orientation.”

Owen’s opponent has a more obvious history: He is Stephen Johnson, a prominent attorney but also – and more significantly here – a conservative Republican state senator. He too is expected to receive BIAW and other industry support.

If they win, they would follow in the track put down by Jim Johnson, who won with BIAW help in the 2004 campaign.

That’s three votes. On property rights – land and environment, mainly – issues, they probably would have another to work with, that of veteran Richard Sanders. (Sanders can be pro-defense on criminal matters, but would probably side with the Republicans more often on civil cases.) After that, they’d need just one more vote. (And there’s plenty of time yet to file.) If they ousted Chambers as well, they’d have that fifth vote.

This could be a partisan revolution, and hardly anyone in Washington seems to have noticed yet.

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