Elections and WA Judges
Ballots for the November 3rd general election ask us to chose between three pairs of Washington State judges. Electoral contests for judges in our state always seem to take me by surprise. Who are these people? What are these positions? On what basis am I supposed to chose between them? What follows is my attempt to put these three races in the context of our state judicial system.
For the Washington State Court of Appeals (District III, i.e. eastern Washington, based in Spokane):
I encourage you to visit the campaign websites of Tracy Staab and Marshall Casey. I admit to some pre-judgement of Mr. Casey based on his 7 year partnership in the practice of law with Matt Shea, State Representative to Olympia the LD4 (Spokane Valley north to Mount Spokane). Matt Shea is credibly accused of involvement with domestic terrorism. You will not find any mention of the partnership with Shea on Casey's campaign website. In this Spokesman article from February 18th Casey studiously avoids criticizing Shea, suggesting that Casey doesn't want to alienate any of the militant, far right wing of the local Republican Party. While Casey's campaign emphasis, "Protecting and Maintaining Individual Rights," seems bland enough, his rather scant endorsements by exclusively right wing legislators suggest his leanings. Contrast that to Tracy Staub's extremely broad based endorsements, her experience as a judge, her endorsement by seven different Bar Associations (which Casey did seek) and the choice is crystal clear: vote Staab for the Court of Appeals, District III. The tab on Staab's website, "About Court of Appeals," contains two short articles that I found very useful general information.
Curiously, both Staab and Casey have amassed substantial campaign contributions, $74,000 and $66,000, respectively. Staab has spent $69,000 of hers while Casey has only spent $26,000 of his (as of October 12). No other Court of Appeals candidate in this election cycle has raised more than $12,000 (pdc.wa.gov). Staab and Casey each raised more than five times that amount. Clearly, there are a lot of contributors to the Staab and Casey campaigns who think this contest is more important than most eastern Washington voters understand or appreciate. Casey filed to run almost 4 months later than Staab, in a what he must have understood would be an uphill fight. Is he hoping to capitalize on the support of Matt Shea's followers? And another thing: Casey's low level of spending may be a timing/reporting issue, but it also might be his acknowledgment of his underdog status. If he leaves a substantial portion of his war chest unspent, it will be worthwhile to pay attention to where it finally goes.
For the two contested seats on the Washington State Supreme Court:
My choices are Montoya-Lewis and Whitener. Both sit on the court by recent appointment by the governor. Both bring welcome diversity to the court. Both are experienced and highly qualified. Their challengers both appear as long shots, having raised less than half the campaign contributions of the incumbents. Perhaps they are hoping the election will play out like the 1990 election contest I detail in "#3" near the end of this post.
My process of orientation to our state's judicial system and judicial elections is laid out below:
We are concerned here only with the Washington State Court system, a system rooted in and governed by Article IV of the Washington State Constitution and the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). See P.S. below for a short contrast to federal courts and judges.
Washington State courts are divided into appellate courts and trial courts. Appellate courts, consisting of the Supreme Court and the three Divisions of the Courts of Appeals, hear cases on appeal from the trial courts. The appellate courts do not conduct trials. All three judicial races on the November ballot are for judges to serve at the appellate level. All Washington State appellate judges serve for a six year term.
Washington State Supreme Court: 9 judges, staggered 6 year terms, age limit 75
Washington State Courts of Appeals: 22 judges divided among three Divisions: Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane (see map) and elected by voters in the Division in which they serve. Division III, Eastern Washington, is based in Spokane. Division III has five of the 22 judgeships. Like Supreme Court judges, State Appellate Court judges serve 6 year terms with an age limit of 75.
The trial courts consist of the Superior and District Courts of the counties and Municipal Courts, i.e. courts established within municipalities that chose to establish a municipal court system (like the City of Spokane). These county and municipal court systems often have explanatory webpages. See Spokane County Superior Court, Spokane County District Court, and the City of Spokane Municipal Court. (Note that each "Court" is really a whole court system with many judges, court rooms, and staff.) The judges that sit on the trial courts of the county and city serve four year terms.
All the judges in the Washington State court system from municipal courts to the Supreme Court are elected. If you are a voter in the City of Spokane you will eventually see on successive ballots candidates for a total of 32 judgeships in five different parts of the court system: 3 City of Spokane Municipal, 8 Spokane County District, 12 Spokane County Superior, 5 Court of Appeals (Division III), and 9 Supreme Court. No wonder I was puzzled!
Since these are all "non-partisan" positions, choosing among these judgeship candidates is (at least officially) neither aided by nor made complicated by party politics and affiliations. Once elected, a Washington State judge often remains in office without opposition, their names appearing on the ballot alone. When two judges vie for an elected seat it usually means one of three things: 1) A judge has just retired from that seat (the Staub/Marshall contest for the seat on the District III Court of Appeals from which Kevin Korsmo is retiring), 2) A judge that was recently appointed to a seat from which a judge has retired/died/aged-out in mid-term, a replacement judge has been appointed, and this is the first time they actually stand for election (the Whitener/Serns and the Montoya-Lewis/Larson races for a Supreme Court seat), or 3) A candidate files and wins in something that looks like a complete fluke.
The number 3 option, the fluke, happened at least once in a Washington State Supreme Court judicial election (in 1990). A then mostly unknown attorney, Charles Johnson, apparently got a wild hair to declare candidacy, didn't campaign, and still unseated Justice Keith M. Callow, a highly respected judge who had risen to the Supreme Court from the Court of Appeals six years earlier. That Johnson won was a complete surprise, so much so that the event resulted in a panelto study the state's system for filling judgeships. Nothing changed. However, today voters can better inform themselves about the candidates for judgeships using information on the internet. (It turns out that Justice Charles Johnson did well after his surprise victory in 1990. He is now the longest serving member of the Washington State Supreme Court.)
In Washington State we elect our judges. It behooves us to pay close attention to whom we elect. I hope this post shines some light on that system.
Keep to the high ground,