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Friday, July 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Upholding gay-marriage ban may put new spin on court races

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Good luck trying to read the political reverberations from the state Supreme Court's decision this week upholding Washington's gay-marriage ban.

Theories abound about how the long-awaited ruling will affect the three justices who are up for re-election this year.

Many observers say Justice Tom Chambers, who so far is unopposed, will likely draw a conservative opponent because of his minority opinion that the gay-marriage ban is unconstitutional.

Justice Susan Owens, who concurred in Chambers' opinion, is already taking heat from religious conservatives in her re-election race against Republican state Sen. Steve Johnson.

Meanwhile, there are rumors that activists in the gay and lesbian community are trying to recruit someone to run against Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, who voted to uphold the state's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). But others say Alexander's vote in the case could help him in his race against challenger John Groen, a prominent property-rights attorney from Bellevue.

The candidate filing deadline for this year's election is today at 5 p.m.

Michael Johnson, a Seattle attorney, filed late Thursday to run against Owens and Steve Johnson. But he declined to take calls, and it was unclear whether the court's ruling prompted his candidacy.

Michael Johnson and his firm, Hardman & Johnson, are listed in the directory of the Greater Seattle Business Association, the gay and lesbian chamber of commerce.

Steve Johnson's campaign, which was scrambling to track down information about his new opponent, called it a "thinly disguised effort to confuse voters." With another candidate named Johnson on the ballot, it decreases the chances that Steve Johnson will be able to win the race outright by taking more than 50 percent of the vote in the September primary.

Lisa MacLean, spokeswoman for a new political-action committee that is supporting Owens, said she didn't know anything about the new candidate.

"I know his name is Johnson — I like that," said MacLean, a political consultant in Seattle.

MacLean works for Citizens to Uphold the Constitution. The new PAC so far has gotten most of its money from labor unions and trial-lawyer groups, including Victims Advocates, another PAC that Michael Johnson gives money to regularly.

Hours after the court's 5-4 gay-marriage ruling was released Wednesday, Gov. Christine Gregoire asked that people on both sides of the issue not take their frustrations out on the justices.

"Whether we agree or disagree with them, we have to respect that they're doing their job," said Gregoire, a Democrat who is supporting all three court incumbents. "The way we distinguish this country from others is respect for the legal process."

The gay-marriage case plunged the Supreme Court squarely into the middle of one of society's most bitter culture clashes. Owens said it was "by far" the most controversial issue she has dealt with since joining the court six years ago.

When the court heard arguments more than a year ago from lawyers representing 19 gay and lesbian couples seeking to marry, more than 5,000 gay-marriage opponents showed up for a rally outside the Temple of Justice.

But Owens, Alexander and Chambers all said Thursday they didn't know how their opinions in the case would play in the election.

"I have no idea," Owens said. "I don't think most of the voters are one-issue people. ... The thinking voters, they look at the big picture."

Alex Hays, a political consultant, said he thinks the most likely fallout from this week's ruling is that someone will file to run against Chambers. "The only question is, will it be a competent, credible opponent or a crazy person," Hays said.

Hays ran conservative Justice Jim Johnson's successful campaign in 2004 and now heads a new political-action group — the Constitutional Law PAC — that is supporting Steve Johnson's bid to unseat Owens.

Even though the ruling came out the way gay-marriage opponents wanted, Hays said many will be unnerved by the slim margin and thus more motivated to vote against Owens.

"There are a bunch of people out there who might not have voted in the primary who are now going to say to themselves, 'Egads, we almost just got gay marriage by one vote,' " Hays said.

The Rev. Joe Fuiten, who heads a political-action group called the Committee for Religious Freedom, agreed. His group is already preparing a mass mailing criticizing Owens and the other justices who argued for allowing gays to wed.

More so than for Owens, it appears the ruling could cut two ways for Alexander.

Hays said Alexander is sure to draw fire — and maybe even an opponent on the left — for his swing vote upholding the gay-marriage ban.

"Liberals will be doing some math," Hays said.

Alexander, however, wrote a concurring opinion that said the ruling should not be read as casting doubt on the right of the Legislature or the people to change the marriage act or provide for civil unions. (The Seattle Times mischaracterized his concurrence in a story Thursday.)

Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle attorney who represented gay couples in the case, said he has heard a lot of "rumors and rumblings" about efforts to recruit a pro-gay-marriage candidate to run against Alexander.

But Fuiten said Alexander's stance in the ruling will do more to hurt Groen's effort to paint the chief justice as an activist judge who legislates from the bench.

"There were two legs under Groen, one was gay marriage and one was property rights," Fuiten said. "He lost one leg."

Groen, however, pointed out that he has been criticizing a broad range of past rulings — and the fact that Alexander, if re-elected, could not serve his full six-year term because state law requires judges to retire at 75.

"My campaign has never been based on the Defense of Marriage Act," Groen said. "The decision does not change my campaign in any manner at all."

Alexander declined to speculate about the ruling's impact on his race. "Frankly, I am not enough of a political prognosticator to know if it helps or hurts," he said.

Chambers, meanwhile, said he hasn't thought about whether his support for gay marriage will hurt his election chances.

He said the justices make "politically sensitive" decisions all the time. "If you spend any time at all thinking, 'Gee, I wonder what the political fallout is going to be,' you wouldn't get anything done," Chambers said.

Chambers added that the court's paramount duty is to protect individual rights.

"When we do our best work, we are making unpopular decisions," he said.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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