A highly unusual Washington Supreme Court decision today in which no members of the Supreme Court participated, for the reason that one of them was the subject of the case. And that one got nailed.
Richard Sanders v. Washington relates back to a tour Sanders took of the McNeil Island Corrections Center in January 2003; during it, he was alleged to have talked with inmates who had cases before the Supreme Court. Ethics charges eventually were brought. In their course, Sanders asked for legal representation from the state attorney general’s office, saying he had been acting in an official capacity; the AG turned him down. he then hired his own attorney. The Commission on Judicial Conduct eventually admonished Sanders, who remained and still is on the court. The current case comes from Sanders’ contention that the state should pay for his attorney costs in the case.
Here’s what the pro tem justices concluded:
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Justice Sanders was charged in the complaint before the Commission with ethical violations involving acts that are outside the scope of a judge’s official duties. His acts involved contact with offenders who had cases pending in his court. Representation of a judge being disciplined for ethical violations is beyond the purpose of RCW 43.10.040. Its purpose is to provide defense to an official when engaged in official acts. Justice Sanders knew or should have known that his conduct was unethical; therefore, he is not entitled to representation.
Justice Sanders argues that denying representation could leave a judge vulnerable to improper or unfounded charges of ethics violations. If a judge is wrongly charged, however, there are adequate safeguards within the Commission’s procedures. Before a case may proceed to hearing, there must be a screening, a preliminary investigation, and a finding of probable cause.
Justice Sanders also argues that since he prevailed on the more serious charges, he should be entitled to recover a pro rata share of his attorney fees. In our view, if a judge is found to have violated any of the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, there is no right to representation or reimbursement. Such is the case here.