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Wednesday, November 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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STATE SUPREME COURT

Seattle Times staff reporter

A candidate who is almost unknown in legal circles and another who is a bastion of the bar apparently won the race for two open positions on the state Supreme Court.

Susan Owens, a district judge from Forks, Clallam County, was leading Yakima prosecutor Jeff Sullivan in early returns for the seat being vacated by retiring Chief Justice Richard Guy.

And in the race for the seat now held by Justice Phil Talmadge, who did not run for reelection, longtime trial attorney Tom Chambers has apparently won over Olympia lawyer Jim Foley, who was running for the high court a second time.

Owens, 51, called her results "too close for comfort."

Owens has worked on domestic-violence issues and helped draft the diversity policy for the Washington State District and Municipal Courts Association. She is on a Supreme Court task force looking at access to justice issues.

She's had endorsements from several women's groups and a number of district and municipal-court judges.

Sullivan, 57, who has been the Yakima County prosecutor since 1974, said the winner likely won't be determined until the absentee votes are counted.

He was endorsed by 22 superior-court judges and many elected prosecutors, in addition to Justices Guy, Talmadge and Gerry Alexander. A prominent figure in the state Republican Party, Sullivan has argued cases before the state and the U.S. Supreme Court.

But despite his impressive career, his campaign has not been smooth. On Oct. 16, a law publication reported that 12 years ago Sullivan had used the term "wetback" during a meeting with Yakima County Superior Court Judge Heather Van Nuys and several others in which they discussed crowding in the county jail.

Sullivan attributed the crowding to having "so many illegal immigrants," 20 percent to 30 percent of the jail population, and used the slur in that discussion, he said.

Van Nuys asked him not to use that term in her presence. He said he apologized and never used it again.

The incident came back to haunt him, however, during his interview with the King County Bar Association before the September primary election. At the end of the interview, which the bar association uses to determine how it will rate candidates, someone asked if he had ever used the slur. He acknowlegded he had and explained the circumstances.

The bar rated him as "well-qualified."

Then, only days before the general election, "somebody decided to tell some news people," Sullivan said.

After the law-journal story came out, the presidents of the Hispanic, Native American, Asian and African-American bar associations held a news conference and wrote an open letter demanding Sullivan apologize for the remark and explain himself.

Sullivan called the bars' open letter unfair.

As a prosecutor, "everything I do is subject to public scrutiny," he said. As a result of the minority bars' actions, "everyone thinks there's some legitimate business here."

The slur was bad, he said, "but no one seems to care that it was never used again."

Chambers, 57, who raised more money, $355,947, than any of the other candidates, said he at times found himself hard-pressed to compete with Foley's familiar name.

Although he beat Foley by a wide margin, he said he wished the margin had been even greater.

"It would give me greater comfort," he said.

When Foley ran unsuccessfully against Faith Ireland in 1998, he said he had a "million-dollar name" because voters mistakenly link it with former U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley, to whom Jim Foley is not related.

In this election, Jim Foley downplayed the importance of his name and insisted voters would be attracted to him by his small-town roots and "country lawyer" demeanor so homespun he even shuns cell phones.

Foley said he made a point of seeking no endorsements or contributions.

Chambers, a former state bar president and successful personal-injury lawyer, countered Foley's folksy approach with radio advertisements portraying himself as the candidate "of the people."

Foley, who vigorously campaigned although he had no financial backing for ads or even brochures, could not be reached for comment last night. He did leave a recorded message on his phone, conceding defeat.

"My opponent spent a lot of money winning this race. I knew going into this it would be tough to beat the money from special interests . . . I tried my best," Foley said. And someday, he added, "I might run again."

Justices Bobbe Bridge and Gerry Alexander also were on the ballot, running unopposed.

Nancy Bartley's phone message number is 253-437-9461. Her e-mail address is nbartley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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