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Bruce Hilyer (left), Sheryl Gordon McCloud, John Ladenburg and Richard Sanders are vying for position nine on the Supreme Court of Washington. (Photo: KCTS9)

Bruce Hilyer (left), Sheryl Gordon McCloud, John Ladenburg and Richard Sanders are vying for position nine on the Supreme Court of Washington. (Photo: KCTS9)

KUOW News

Open Supreme Court Seat Makes For Vigorous Race

Amy Radil
07/26/2012

The candidates for the open seat on the Washington state supreme court are a diverse bunch. Together they bring experience as prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. One, Richard Sanders, is seeking his comeback to the state's highest court.

TRANSCRIPT

Former Supreme Court justice Richard Sanders would like to change that "former" back to "current." After 15 years on the state supreme court, he lost his seat in 2010 in a close race to Charlie Wiggins. Wiggins attacked Sanders for his frequent dissenting opinions, saying they reflected an ideology more than the facts of each case. Speaking at a forum hosted by KCTS and the League of Women Voters, Sanders made no apologies and said he took his mission from the state constitution.

Sanders: "What I would like to be remembered for is standing up for the rights of am unpopular individual, even when I had to stand alone."

Sanders clearly relished his role as an outsider on the court, one of the few judges who was always elected, never appointed to his job. He's also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Washington and written legal textbooks. But of the four candidates, Sanders received the lowest ratings from his fellow lawyers. He sees humor in the fact that he's a vocal critic of state power who wants a state paycheck.

Sanders: "I found a lot of satisfaction in that and I'd love to get my government job back."

Outside of the courtroom, Sanders led the process to set higher standards for public defenders. Most recently the court has acted to limit caseloads for those attorneys. Sanders says he proudly supports gun rights, religious liberty and property rights.

If elected, Sanders would serve just one term before hitting the court's mandatory retirement age of 75. But three other candidates are also vying for that seat. Bruce Hilyer, the presiding judge in King County until 2010, is also running. Hilyer says Sanders was a divisive justice who weakened the image of the state Supreme Court.

Hilyer: "I don't think that you should use the Supreme Court to be a soapbox for your personal ideology, I think you should speak as a group."

Hilyer has served as a King County judge for 12 years. He's received strong ratings and could be seen as the candidate for the judicial establishment. Hilyer grew up in Bellevue and got his pilot's license the day he turned 17. He often travels to campaign events by Cessna.

Hilyer: "So it's a nice vehicle for getting around the state, which is what you have to do when you're running for state Supreme Court."

Hilyer was a county prosecutor and an attorney with the city of Seattle under Mayor Charles Royer. Candidate Sheryl Gordon McCloud has spent her legal career on the opposite side of the courtroom, as a defense lawyer, often for the poor.

McCloud: "I'm running because I think constitutional rights really matter in our everyday lives."

McCloud is an appellate lawyer and argues frequently before the state Supreme Court. She has also taught at Seattle University and volunteered with the University of Washington's Innocence Project, which aims to free those wrongfully convicted.

In May she won a notable victory: She got Darold Stenson off death row and won him a new trial.

McCloud: "The court ruled 8–1 that after 15 years on death row here in Washington, we found evidence that the state had hidden what was helpful to the defendant, and it was so helpful that it might have changed the outcome of the trial."

And finally former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg says his legal career has covered all the bases.

Ladenburg: "I've tried hundreds of criminal cases and civil cases over the years in private practice and as a prosecuting attorney. I've tried murder cases, including death penalty cases, both as a defense lawyer and a prosecutor."

Ladenburg says he's also had to administer difficult projects in his roles as county executive and chair of the Sound Transit board. Of all the candidates, he's the strongest critic of how the state's judicial system is run. He says the Legislature should not have allowed judicial races to be decided in the primary if a candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote.

Ladenburg: "I think it's ridiculous that we elect anybody in a primary. It oughta all be in the general election. The fact that two of these three Supreme Court races will probably be decided in the primary is just wrong, and it's bad for democracy."

Those are the races for incumbents Susan Owens and Steve Gonzalez. Ladenburg says he would seek a more public role for the courts if elected, with better disclosure of the court's own records, as well as of disciplinary actions against lawyers.

At a recent debate, Ladenburg attacked Bruce Hilyer for imposing new user fees as the presiding judge of King County's court system.

Ladenburg: "Some of the judges here in the room thought the answer was to increase fees. King County — to your detriment — has special fees for your courts that deny access to justice. Access to justice is all about how much it costs to get into the courtroom for many people, and that's not being done equally around the state."

But Hilyer defended the fees. He said the county's budget crisis threatened its family court services.

Hilyer: "We had a situation in King County where we were going to lose those 28 employees or we could find some sort of a compromise. The compromise we reached was to add $600,000 of fee revenue, and the county added $750,000 and we saved those people. And they're essential to the access to justice."

Hilyer is the only candidate in his race who defends the usefulness of state sentencing guidelines. Speaking at a forum hosted by the King County Bar Association, Hilyer said some of the sentencing rules are flawed, but in general they've brought a better sense of fairness to the courts.

Hilyer: "It was very important to restore public confidence that there be some consistency in sentencing. It was disturbing to the public when judges had so much discretion that one person could rob a grocery store and get probation, and one could get prison."

But all three of the other candidates condemned the state sentencing laws as taking away discretion from judges. Ladenburg said legislators tend to pass harsh sentences based on the "flavor of the year." Sanders said only judges know the most important information, the facts of each individual case. Sheryl McCloud said in one of her cases, a judge sentenced a woman to probation for a nonviolent crime so she could better care for her children.

McCloud: "He was the one who had heard the facts. That's what he decided. The Washington Supreme Court reversed, on the ground that the Legislature passed this Sentencing Reform Act, and the Sentencing Reform Act didn't allow the trial court judge to deviate."

McCloud, Sanders, Hilyer and Ladenburg are on the ballot for Washington Supreme Court Position 9 in the August primary. The vacancy has been created by the retirement of Justice Tom Chambers, who has endorsed his old colleague, Richard Sanders, for the job.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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