Thursday, September 16, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Durham Resigning State Supreme Court

Seattle Times Olympia Bureau

OLYMPIA - Supreme Court Justice Barbara Durham submitted her resignation yesterday, saying that after a tough few years on the court she decided to leave more than three years early.

"The last few years, especially while serving as chief justice, have been taxing and frequently stressful," Durham wrote in a letter to Gov. Gary Locke. "Now is the time to take a fresh look at the future."

She didn't give any specifics about why she was resigning, except that she and her husband "have decided that it is about time for both of us to pursue a more relaxing lifestyle."

Her resignation is effective Sept. 30.

Durham's decision brings an end to nearly 26 years as a judge - a career that saw her the first woman on the Court of Appeals, the first female chief justice and the only judge to have served at every level of court in the state.

It also ends months of speculation about Durham's future on the state's highest court and came the same day that comments were published from some of her fellow justices questioning her unexplained absences.

"Obviously, she's been thinking about it for a long time," said Everett Billingslea, counsel to Gov. Gary Locke.

Durham could not be reached for comment.

In her letter to Locke, she said she plans to "pursue some other interests related to the law."

Durham, 56 and a resident of Seattle, is the senior member of the court. She began her judicial career in 1973 when she was appointed to the Mercer Island District Court.

In 1985, she was appointed to the Supreme Court by Republican Gov. John Spellman. Ten years later, she became the state's first female chief justice. She wrote court decisions that established standards for using DNA evidence in court, upheld the state's sexual-predator law, and ruled that "battered-child syndrome" could be used to help prove a self-defense claim.

She stepped down as chief justice in 1998.

Durham also worked to reform court operations. She appointed a panel, known as the Walsh Commission, to consider whether judges should be appointed, not elected; was unsuccessful in a push to cut the court from nine members to seven; and gave more power to the chief justice, which had largely been a ceremonial post.

"I think her single, best talent lay in her ability to pull issues out of the back room and put them on the table where everyone could see and deal with them," said Chief Justice Richard Guy in a statement released by the court this morning.

Rumors about Durham's departure began circulating in May after she withdrew her nomination for the federal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in San Francisco. She said then that her husband's poor health required her to stay closer to home.

At the time, she had already missed half of the Supreme Court's spring term recovering from eye surgery.

When the Supreme Court convened for its fall term Tuesday, Durham was absent again. She had requested substitute judges be appointed to fill in for her. Those were scheduled for September and October, even before her resignation. She gave no reason for her absence, said Court Clerk C.J. Merritt.

Durham's resignation gives Locke his first opportunity to appoint a judge to the Supreme Court. Billingslea said it is unlikely a nominee will be found by the time Durham officially leaves Sept. 30.

He said that unlike a Superior Court vacancy that brings in many resumes, potential Supreme Court justices are often reluctant to make such a direct application for the job, and the Governor's Office will have to conduct a thorough search. However, some people already are expressing their interest in the post.

Whoever is appointed will have to run for election in November 2000 for the remainder of Durham's term.

"I've already been hearing from people who want to be considered for the job," Locke said last night.

Billingslea said people applied for the job almost since the day Locke took office in 1997 after initial word that Durham might be headed for the 9th Circuit. There was a new flurry of interest after she withdrew her nomination.

"After she withdrew from the 9th Circuit it became apparent that she was thinking about making major changes in her life," Billingslea said. "To withdraw from something like that is pretty significant."

Two prominent candidates confirmed this week that they're interested in the job: Seattle attorney and University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer, an unsuccessful candidate for election to the Supreme Court last year; and Dennis Sweeney, a judge on the District 3 State Court of Appeals who previously practiced law in the Tri-Cities.

By coincidence, Sweeney was filling in for Durham on cases this week.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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