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Friday, June 29, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Herb Robinson

A Familiar Face, Lots Of Experience

MOSTLY absent from the public spotlight since 1984, Republican John Spellman may be getting bored with practicing law in a private firm doing business out of downtown Seattle's glitzy Columbia Center.

For a man who spent a good part of his life in the rough-and-tumble (and the fun and excitement) of elective politics, private-sector lawyering by comparison must be dullsville.

Spellman doesn't say that. But it could be one of the reasons the avuncular former governor and longtime King County government figure is thinking about a return to the political wars - albeit this time in the tamer arena of nonpartisan judicial elections.

It's more than an abstract, whim-of-the-moment thought. Spellman takes pains to say he is ``seriously considering'' a statewide race in the fall for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Probably he'd go for the position vacated nine months ago by the resignation of respected Justice Vernon Pearson of Tacoma.

(At age 65, Pearson stepped down with refreshing candor after completing about two years of his second six-year term. Acknowledging a slippage in his enthusiasm and energy, Pearson said: ``I don't want to serve on the court just for the prestige of the position.'' Would that everyone in public office were that honest.)

If Spellman, 63, decides to enter the campaign (the filing deadline will come toward the end of next month), it will have to be bad news for Richard P. Guy, 57, now occupying Pearson's former chair by virtue of an appointment by Gov. Booth Gardner, a fellow Democrat, last October.

Nothing wrong with Guy. There are, in fact, a lot of good things about the state's newest Supreme Court justice, an incumbent by appointment who now must stand for election to the unexpired balance of Pearson's term.

Trouble is, Guy is not exactly a household name around the state - especially in Western Washington, where most of the voters are. Spellman, of course, is a far more familiar figure off 14 years as a King County commissioner and executive and his single four-year term as governor.

And in this state as in most others, the winners of contested judicial elections are decided more according to superficialities - a well-known name, a charismatic personality - than anything else.

Even in campaigns for the state's highest court, a body expected to achieve even greater significance at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court increasingly is shifting more and more responsibility for hellishly important constitutional-rights decisions to the states.

Under the court-election ground rules, candidates cannot challenge their opponents' qualifications or announce their views on issues that might come up for judicial review. Mostly, campaigns for judgeships are contests of credentials - who seems to have the better educational background, legal experience, organizational endorsements.

The prohibition against debating meaningful stuff can lead to the invention of phony issues. For example, if Spellman challenges Guy, look for Guy's supporters to argue the ``Eastern Washington'' proposition. It goes this way:

Except for incumbent Justice Robert Brachtenbach, who long ago lived in Yakima, Guy, formerly a Spokane attorney, is the only Supreme Court jurist from Eastern Washington. The others - Keith Callow, Robert Utter, James Dolliver, Fred Dore, James Andersen, Barbara Durham, Charles Smith - come from west of the Cascades.

Implying, as it does, that there are two ways to interpret the law according to the state's geography, the ``Eastern Washington'' issue is not much of an argument. It is, in fact, ridiculous. But when you're stuck for campaign fodder in an issueless election, geography is as good a pitch as any.

More important, Guy's performance as a practicing lawyer (specializing in commercial and real-estate law and bankruptcy proceedings) has won praise from his peers in both political parties, including Republican King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

Guy also has been saluted by his colleagues for his courageous gesture several years ago in resigning a Superior Court judgeship he'd won in Spokane County. The resignation dramatized the low salaries paid judges at a time when none had received a raise in four years.

While his political origins largely are rooted in King County, Spellman became known to many throughout the state during the intense 1976 gubernatorial contest, in which he lost to the iconoclastic Dixy Lee Ray by almost 130,000 votes.

Four years later, Spellman won the governorship, defeating Democrat Jim McDermott, who had eliminated Ray in 1980's gubernatorial primary.

Assuming the governor's chair as the state began its slide into the awful recession of the early 1980s - a period that he later would describe as the era of going to hell in a handbasket - Spellman performed creditably enough. But not enough to win re-election.

What does he know about being a judge? Spellman cites his 19 years of practice as a lawyer, which now exceeds the time he's spent in public office, plus his involvement as a county legislator and executive and as the state's chief executive ``in the whole range of law-and-justice issues.''

Should Spellman win a Supreme Court position, he'd become the first in the state to hit a political triple - service in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of Washington government.

Also, for political trivia fans: Spellman not only would succeed a judge he had appointed during his tenure as governor (Pearson), but would join two still-serving justices (Andersen and Durham) who began their court careers as Spellman appointees.

To talk to Spellman is to gain the distinct feeling that he's already decided to make the race. If only Guy and Spellman should file for the Pearson court position, the votes cast in the September primary could decide the winner.

``This could be,'' Spellman says with a chuckle, ``a very short and gentlemanly affair.''

Herb Robinson's column appears Monday and Friday on The Times' editorial page.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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