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Thursday, June 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

A better way to pick judges

Special to The Times

One of us believes that Senate Democrats are unfairly and perhaps unconstitutionally blocking President Bush's outstanding nominees to the federal bench.

The other believes they are doing exactly what the Constitution contemplates — preserving justice for the people by serving as a check on radical appointments.

It is doubtful we will ever agree on that issue.

However, there is something more fundamental about which we do agree.

Our country's system of justice is the hallmark of our democracy. Every day, tens of thousands of people throughout the country walk into courthouses seeking justice. They bring with them their most personal, difficult and important issues and rely on complete strangers to resolve them. They do so because they have faith that honesty, integrity and the rule of law will govern. They do it because they trust.

While every system has flaws, day in and day out, our system works. The world has too many examples right now of what happens when issues are resolved by anger, power or violence, instead of by fair and unyielding justice.

As Harper Lee's Atticus Finch argued in "To Kill a Mockingbird":

"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States, or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our country all men are created equal."

Gregory Peck may have just died, but we as a society cannot allow this vision of justice to die.

On both the state and federal level, there is a growing politicization surrounding the selection of judges. It is a dangerous trend that is bad for the courts, and bad for the people. If courts are viewed as just another political branch, people will lose all trust.

Our elected leaders are not strangers to rough-and-tumble politics, and the selection of federal judges for our region has had its share of professional chokeholds.

However, we have settled into a system that could serve as a model for the country.

The White House (with input from Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue) and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrats, have agreed to the formation of bipartisan, merit selection committees to vet applicants for all federal trial court openings in the state.

The White House and the senators each appoint three members to the committees. The committees interview applicants and recommend up to three qualified candidates for any opening. To get on the list, a majority of the committee must agree.

While neither the White House nor the senators are bound to the list, history shows it works. We have an outstanding federal bench here in the Pacific Northwest.

U.S. District Judges Robert Lasnik and Marsha Pechman of Seattle were selected through merit-based, bipartisan committees. U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton of Tacoma was confirmed after passing through a similar, hybrid model. Recently, such a committee in Spokane recommended names to the president for a vacancy there.

Barring unforeseen developments, it appears the president's nominee will be introduced and supported by both senators. If so, confirmation should be swift.

Right now, we are honored to serve as co-chairs for a committee that is seeking a replacement for U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who was recently selected to be the director of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C.

Serving with us on the committee are Heidi Kelly, who was state director for former Sen. Slade Gorton; King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng; Constance Proctor, an attorney and member of the University of Washington Board of Regents; and Seattle attorney John Wolfe.

Each of us is committed to a merit-based, nonpartisan process to recommend the most qualified individuals.

To get superior judges, however, we first need superior candidates. If you know someone who should apply, we urge you to support them in doing so. Act now. We need to continue the tradition of excellence in our courts.

Jenny A. Durkan is a Seattle attorney and board member of the Center for Women and Democracy at the University of Washington. Mike McKay a Seattle attorney, was U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington from 1989 to 1993. Applications to replace U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein are being accepted until Monday. For more information, E-mail Durkan at jdurkan@durkan.us or McKay at mdm@mckay-chadwell.com

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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