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Know your judges
Who would have thought the big news emerging from Washington's candidate filing week would be the state Supreme Court?
The flurry of candidate filings last week swelled one race between incumbent Justice Susan Owens and a well-known challenger, Sen. Stephen Johnson, into a field of five. One new candidate, Michael Johnson, said he was not going to raise money or seek endorsements but would run on the "name issue," which suggests he might serve as a stalking horse against the like-named senator. Ballot obfuscation is a cynical statement about Washington voters and judicial elections. It should not be the motivation to run for state Supreme Court, and it might run afoul of a Washington law prohibiting people from deliberately attempting to confuse voters.
These high-court races are among the most important of state elected offices, yet they are typically the most ignored by voters. Judicial races typically are low-rhetoric. Candidates won't — or shouldn't — be making promises about how they will judge cases because conduct rules limit what candidates should say.
National studies indicate that only about one in five voters is still checking off boxes by the time he or she gets to the judicial races languishing at the end of the ballot.
But in recent years, big money has started to flow into state judicial races from national liberal and conservative causes. The Building Industry Association of Washington was a big player in one 2004 Supreme Court race.
Much is at stake. Just look at the reaction to the state Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling last week upholding the state's ban on gay marriage.
The newly formed Judicial Selection Coalition is attempting to find ways to better inform voters about judicial candidates' qualifications and philosophies, which may include an informational Web site. That is an admirable effort, as are the many judicial forums that will no doubt be held before the election.
Judicial races, especially at the high-court level, seem to have entered a new phase. Voters should pay attention.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company