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Sanders (left) and Wiggins campaign in Shoreline, photo by Amy Radil.

Sanders (left) and Wiggins campaign in Shoreline, photo by Amy Radil.


Wiggins Tries To Unseat Sanders On State Supreme Court

Amy Radil

State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders and his challenger Charlie Wiggins have waged a vigorous campaign this year. One of the biggest differences between them is in their view of how judges should get and keep their own jobs. Wiggins says campaign spending needs tighter limits, and judges need to step aside when big campaign donors enter their courtroom. Sanders opposes campaign regulations. He says they have unintended consequences.


The two men have faced off on this issue before. Richard Sanders has served three terms on the Washington State Supreme Court. His challenger, Charlie Wiggins, is a judge and lawyer from Bainbridge Island. And while this is his first race for the state supreme court, Wiggins and Sanders have been adversaries before on the issue of how judges should do their jobs.

Wiggins is worried that judicial elections are eroding public confidence in the justice system. On this day he's giving a lunchtime speech on the topic in a restaurant on Lake Union in Seattle. He tells the group that many lawyers are afraid to run against sitting judges who know them.

Wiggins: "Who is the most logical and likely candidate to run for election? Someone who appears in that court. And if they're going to run against a sitting judge in a court in which they appear, it's kind of a dicey gamble. I can tell you it's a dicey gamble because I'm running against a sitting judge in the court in which I appear."

Wiggins has argued cases in the state supreme court and promoted new rules for those justices to abide by. As head of the Washington chapter of the American Judicature Society, Wiggins helped craft a new policy calling for judges to sit out cases involving big campaign donors.

Wiggins: "It would have provided that if a party to a case had spent more than a certain threshold amount helping to get a judge elected — whether that was direct contributions, independent expenditures, or PAC money — then the opposing side could move to ask the judge to step down from the case."

The justices did not embrace that concept. Wiggins says the rule they approved was watered down and makes no mention of any dollar amount or threshold.

Wiggins: "It says basically that the judge should evaluate whether the judge thinks that there would be a perception of impropriety about the judge's sitting on the case and gives some factors to be considered, but it's a very amorphous rule and it leaves it entirely up to the judge."

Wiggins says it was the US Supreme Court ruling in Caperton v. Massey last year that got him alarmed about the flood of money into judicial races. In that case, the court ruled that a judge should have stepped aside when Massey Energy brought a case in his courtroom. That's because the firm's CEO spent $3 million toward the judge's election campaign. And that judge joined the ruling in the company's favor. Wiggins wrote a "friend of the court" brief on behalf of 27 state supreme court justices saying the judge should not have heard the case. Richard Sanders signed on to an opposing brief, which argued that campaign spending does not create a conflict of interest for judges.

At a recent candidate forum in Shoreline, Wiggins said he's trying to reduce the influence of campaign spending.

Wiggins: "I think we have a problem with special interest money going into judicial elections."

But Sanders responded that he thinks they have the opposite problem this year.

Sanders: "The problem that we have, that both Charlie and I have in this race, is not too much money but not enough money. We have a statewide race, a little over $200,000 each. So judicial candidates get lost on the horizon and don't really have sufficient funds to get their message out."

Sanders compares restricting campaign donations to a game of whack–a–mole. He says campaign spending limits have simply shifted spending to independent groups, which are outside the candidate's control.

Sanders: "These rules have unintended consequences sometimes, you think you're solving a problem but you're really creating a much bigger one."

Sanders says he sees no evidence that campaign contributions are influencing judges' decisions. He basically supports the current system. He doesn't embrace the concept of creating a commission to nominate judicial candidates, as some other states do.

Sanders: "We have a good system here in the state of Washington of electing our judges. It gives people an opportunity to serve in the judiciary who are not insiders, who are not elites, who are not appointed by the governor or some special blue ribbon commission that's appointed by the governor."

Sanders says he was a political outsider when he first won election to the state supreme court in 1995. He seems to relish his reputation for siding with defendants and against the state. He carries a sheaf of index cards in his bag with quotations from the Founding Fathers.

Reporter: "What are these?"

Sanders: "Little note cards that I use in my speeches."

The cards offer cautions about abuse of government power.

Sanders: "Hamilton summed it up in Federalist number 51, he said, 'In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.'"

Wiggins says Sanders carries his skepticism of state power too far, by siding overwhelmingly with defendants in criminal cases and also by opposing most disciplinary actions recommended for the state's lawyers. Sanders himself has been cited for two ethics violations. Wiggins received higher candidate ratings from the King County Bar Association and the Municipal League of King County. He's also backed by prosecutors and police officers. Sanders is supported by some unlikely bedfellows, including gun owners and trial lawyers.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

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