Justice admonished for visiting inmates
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders was admonished Thursday by his peers for violating judicial ethics rules by visiting detainees at a state sex-offender treatment center, including some patients who had cases pending before the court.
In a unanimous ruling, nine lower-court judges sitting in as Supreme Court justices pro tem upheld the state Commission on Judicial Conduct's admonishment of Sanders.
"By asking questions of inmates who were or should have been recognized as potential litigants on issues currently pending before the court, Justice Richard B. Sanders violated the Code of Judicial Conduct," the judges said in their ruling. "His appearance created an appearance of partiality."
Sanders has insisted that he did nothing wrong and that the disciplinary actions against him were unfair.
In 2003, Sanders accepted an invitation from a detainee at the state's Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. Other justices turned down an invitation, and two even cautioned Sanders he shouldn't take the tour.
During his visit, Sanders warned detainees not to bring up the specifics of their cases. But he accepted documents from some patients and asked them for their thoughts about "volitional control" — a legal issue that revolves around whether sex offenders acted willfully or were overtaken by irresistible urges.
At the time, the court was considering a key case involving volitional control. At least one of the offenders Sanders spoke to was involved in that case.
Last year, the Commission on Judicial Conduct admonished Sanders for his "lapse in judgment."
It ordered Sanders to withdraw for two years from any cases involving "volitional control" arguments. But Sanders already had removed himself from the case pending before the court and the commission later struck that portion of its ruling.
An admonishment is the lowest-level penalty the commission can impose. The panel also can issue written reprimands or even recommend to the Supreme Court that a judge be suspended or removed from the bench.
Kurt Bulmer, a Seattle attorney who represented Sanders, said that although the admonishment is a relatively minor penalty, it sends a stifling message to judges and forces them into an "inappropriate level of isolation."
Bulmer noted that Thursday's ruling only found an "appearance of partiality," not that Sanders actually did anything wrong.
"It's just that an outside observer might think he did something wrong," Bulmer said.
If judges are forced to always be wary of how their actions might appear to someone else, they "lose the ability to even move in their community," Bulmer said.
But Reiko Callner, executive director for the judicial-conduct commission, said judges have to be held to a higher ethical standard than people in other professions.
Callner said society grants judges a great deal of independence and power.
"Their part of the bargain is to uphold even the appearance of impartiality so as to maintain faith and confidence in the judiciary," Callner said.
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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