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Wednesday, November 1, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Streamline The Supreme Court? -- Measure Would Alter Rules For Picking Chief Justice

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

At a time when reform and cost efficiency are being touted as new watchwords in government, some current and former Washington Supreme Court justices are seeking a little shakeup of their own.

Voters will be asked Tuesday to approve a state constitutional amendment that is as straightforward as it is little-known: to rewrite the rules for selecting the chief justice.

Proponents say the constitutional amendment, Substitute Senate Joint Resolution 8210, will improve leadership by replacing the present complex rotation system for choosing the designated leader of the state's highest court. Justices would instead elect from among themselves the person they think is best for the job and ask the chief justice to serve four years, instead of two.

There is no organized opposition to the proposal, but it is generating debate. The most controversial part of SSJR 8210 hints at more sweeping change: reducing the size of the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Barbara Durham and former Justice Robert Utter are among those who think cutting the court from nine justices to seven would help the bench issue rulings more quickly and save the state an estimated $1.4 million every two years.

"The Washington Supreme Court simply takes too long to get its opinions out," said Utter, who resigned earlier this year over his personal objections to the death penalty. "Seven people can reach a decision a lot more efficiently and lot more effectively than nine."

Washington is one of only six states with more than seven justices on the Supreme Court.

Still, lawmakers in Olympia aren't eager to shrink the court, in part because future governors would have fewer chances to shape the court to their liking.

The nine-member court, after all, has an influential voice over some of the most hotly debated social and criminal issues. Just over half the 1,000 cases presented to the court annually for possible review come from inmates or involve criminal matters.

"I think there'd be some interest (in reducing the court) because of the savings, but there'd also be some concern about what the makeup of the court would be," said state Rep. Larry Sheahan, a Whitman County Republican who chairs the House Law and Justice Committee. "Clearly, the members of our caucus would be interested in having a Republican (governor) appoint more members of our court."

It was perhaps no surprise, then, that some key Republicans now running for governor were cool to the constitutional amendment when it made its way through the Legislature last spring. House Majority Leader Dale Foreman, R-Wenatchee, was excused from the House's final vote. And State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, voted against it in the upper chamber.

Foreman says he has no objection to justices choosing their administrative leader but doesn't want to downsize the court. He believes it would hamper gender, race, geographic and philosophical diversity.

Roach thinks that having justices elect their leader might make them inclined to form voting blocks based on their points of view, she says.

Some Democrats also opposed the proposed downsizing, citing their interest in getting more women and minorities on the bench.

Since statehood, only four justices have been women. The current nine-member court includes three women and six men, one of whom is African American.

Last spring, Durham took the chief justice and downsizing proposals to the Legislature, saying it would help the court do its share to improve efficiency in government.

It won two-thirds vote in both houses - but only after supporters agreed to water down the proposal for a smaller court.

Utter has been a main proponent for trimming the court. One of the reasons the court hasn't taken the lead sooner, he says, is that Supreme Court justices were fearful of losing their jobs or being politically targeted for removal. SSJR 8210 would ensure that any reduction takes place through attrition.

But the Supreme Court itself is somewhat split, with a bare majority supporting the ballot measure.

"If we reduce the judges, we'd have to increase support staff" to handle more cases individually, said Justice Charles Z. Smith. "As things operate now, the court is as efficient as it ever will be . . . reducing the court by two is pie in the sky."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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