Preserving an independent judiciary
Special to The Times
CONTRARY to charges from its detractors, the Washington Supreme Court has been a model of impartiality and a clear example of what democracy needs and requires to remain vibrant.
The complaint about a "lack of judicial restraint" is a baseless charge and a Trojan horse being used to camouflage an attempt to take control of our appellate courts by a moneyed group of special interests and their allies. These charges by the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) and Constitutional Law PAC have nothing to do with reverence for our constitution, or "restraint."
Examples of good and balanced decisions of the state Supreme Court include a ruling that a double rapist must receive at least the mandatory minimum sentence for each crime; and a holding that gag orders and secrecy agreements in legal settlements are prohibited if they seek to hide public hazards like the pollution of drinking water. The Supreme Court also has received special recognition for efforts to crack down on lawyer misconduct and ensuring legal services and access to justice for all our state's citizens.
The Washington Supreme Court is No. 2 among the 12 largest state supreme courts whose opinions are most frequently cited in the decisions of other courts around the country. It is a court that consistently upholds the state constitution; protects everyone's constitutional rights; is fair and impartial; does not allow special interests to influence court decisions; and has the courage to make decisions based on the law, even if they are unpopular.
So what is the real agenda here? To replace impartial appellate judges with hand-picked candidates who can be counted on to support BIAW's agenda to undermine growth-management and land-use laws and to prioritize the deregulation of our state's building industry over protecting our public health and natural resources. Its plan to dismantle these protections in the courts is less costly than a legislative strategy, which would require a far greater investment in state Senate and House campaigns, and stealthier, given that many voters feel they don't have enough information to cast votes at the judicial ballot level.
With their outpouring of huge amounts of money and TV ads in recent and current judicial races, BIAW and its candidates are promoting the opposite of impartiality. In 2004, the BIAW and its affiliates spent more than $225,000 on a state Supreme Court campaign, outspending the other candidate, an eminently qualified sitting judge, by a ratio of more than 3-1.
Just prior to the new campaign-finance laws that took effect this June, BIAW dumped $100,000 into another state Supreme Court campaign. If Washington voters buy BIAW's bill of goods in November, it will signal the end of the people's control over our state's judicial system.
I have recently joined Citizens to Uphold the Constitution, a moderate coalition of organizations and individuals who have come together in response to BIAW's efforts, to assure and protect a fair and independent judiciary. The coalition seeks to reach out to persons on both sides of the political aisle — citizens, former justices, former judges, and former bar association presidents like me. It involves citizens such as former Gov. Gary Locke and Ruth Woo, a local advocate for justice who has worked on the campaigns of Republicans and Democrats alike.
Citizens to Uphold the Constitution will help hold BIAW and Constitutional Law PAC accountable to the people through public-disclosure laws. And we will focus on educating and turning out voters to support independent judicial candidates.
Judicial independence does not mean that judges are free to decide cases according to their own whims or prejudices. It means that judges have the authority to exercise their constitutional obligation to make hard decisions, unpopular decisions, without concern for retribution.Ron Ward is the immediate past president of the Washington State Bar Association and a member of Citizens to Uphold the Constitution. He is based in Seattle.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company