Justice Richard Sanders' ethics hearing starts
Seattle Times staff reporter
For the second time in nine years on the bench, Washington Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, in a hearing before the Commission on Judicial Conduct, is fighting charges that he violated judicial-ethics rules.
It's extremely rare for judges to face hearings such as this, according to Barrie Althoff, executive director of the commission.
Sanders' latest hearing, which began yesterday, concerns his January 2003 tour of the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, where he is accused of speaking with sex offenders about their cases.
Ethical rules prohibit judges from discussing cases outside of court with parties that may appear before them, according to Katrina Pflaumer, who is disciplinary counsel in the case. Sanders, she said in opening statements, did so "purposely, recklessly and improperly."
Sanders denies any impropriety, and he argues that the rules themselves were vague.
If the commission decides that Sanders violated ethical rules, it may recommend a number of sanctions ranging from admonition to censure and removal from the bench. Althoff, however, said he expects the recommendation to fall far short of that. If discipline is recommended, Sanders can appeal the decision.
The first time Sanders faced the Commission on Judicial Conduct was in 1997, after he spoke at an anti-abortion rally.
The commission found him in violation, but the decision was overturned on appeal.
In the current hearing, which is expected to last through the week, Pflaumer said yesterday that Sanders knew exactly what he was doing when he arranged a tour of the Special Commitment Center. Other justices were invited along, as well, but they all declined.
Pflaumer said the ethical risks were obvious: Because residents of the center may appeal their confinement annually, their cases often come before the court. In fact, the court was in the midst of considering one McNeil Island case at the time of the tour.
On the tour, Sanders paid "lip service to ethical rules," according to Pflaumer. "He said [to the residents], I don't want you to talk about your personal cases." Then, she said, "He promptly asked them about their personal cases."
Sanders also discussed the issue of "volitional control" — that is, whether these sex offenders could control their own behavior — an issue that is at the very heart of every commitment, Pflaumer said. This involves not only the cases of the particular residents Sanders spoke with, but all of the sex offenders' cases, she argued.
Sanders does not deny having discussions with a number of residents at the center. He recused himself from the pending sex-offender case.
His attorney, Kurt Bulmer, argued yesterday that Sanders did nothing wrong.
"You will discover Justice Sanders is not a rogue judge," Bulmer said in opening statements. Rather, he is a judge who "does things the right way but who refuses to be intimidated" by the commission. Bulmer also pointed out that tours of state facilities are clearly allowed under ethical guidelines.
The hearing is expected to resume today with the testimony of Justices Faith Ireland and Gerry Alexander. Bulmer likely will begin the defense's case tomorrow.
The commission is expected to reach a decision in February.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562
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