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Friday, August 6, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Same-sex marriage views put aside, candidates say

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Republicans running for Washington state attorney general oppose same-sex marriage. The Democrats support it.

All say their personal opinions shouldn't matter much to voters.

As the issue of gay marriage heads to the Washington State Supreme Court, either the current attorney general, Christine Gregoire, or the next attorney general, scheduled to take office Jan. 12, will be charged with defending the state's ban before the state Supreme Court.

Though the attorney general is elected, the fundamentals of being a lawyer apply to the job: Private views must be set aside for the good of the client.

"I support gay marriage," said Democratic candidate Mark Sidran, "but as attorney general, my job would be to defend state law to the best of my ability. ... I think people understand the role of a lawyer."

King County Superior Court Judge William Downing on Wednesday ruled that same-sex couples can marry, a victory for the eight couples who sued for that right and an advance for a national movement that also saw defeat this week in Missouri, where voters approved a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Marriage licenses are not being issued to gays and lesbians in King County because an earlier agreement calls for the state Supreme Court to have the say on the constitutionality of Washington's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Washington is one of 38 states with a Defense of Marriage Act.

No date has been set for arguments before Washington's Supreme Court, so it's not clear whether Gregoire would see the case through before she leaves office. Gregoire has said she personally opposes same-sex marriage.

Sidran, his Democratic opponent Deborah Senn and Republican Michael Vaska all declined to say what they thought of Downing's ruling, explaining it would be inappropriate to comment should they be called on to handle the case.

The other Republican candidate, King County Councilman Rob McKenna, criticized the ruling's wording as too broad and said its argument that there is no compelling state interest to deny marriage to two people in a committed relationship could leave marriage open to blood relatives or those practicing polygamy.

"It threatens to destroy all standards we apply to the right of marriage," he said.

McKenna said that although he agrees with the Defense of Marriage Act, his personal opinions would not enter into how he argued a court case. He also said Senn's and Sidran's support of gay marriage would not put them at a disadvantage, because any lawyer understands the obligation to the client.

Vaska, who opposes gay marriage, said he might not agree with many of the laws he would be required to defend.

Vaska was less willing than McKenna to discuss his opposition to gay marriage, advocating a less politicized role for an attorney general.

"My view is that the attorney general should not be speaking out personally on the most divisive issues of the day because it undermines the reputation of the office ... in administering justice," Vaska said.

Senn has run her campaign — on issues such as health care and consumer rights — almost as an extension of her advocacy role as state insurance commissioner. On the issue of same-sex marriage, though, she is reluctant now to speak too much.

She said it's prudent to "make sure" that if elected, "someone does not try to take a statement and use it to say 'she cannot defend the law.' "

Although personal beliefs are expected to be set aside to defend a client, Sidran said voters want an understanding of a candidate's personal side.

"It's worth knowing his or her values because it's an elected job," Sidran said. "People attach certain values to a party label, for example."

The primary will be held Sept. 14.

Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or bkaiman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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