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Thursday, August 05, 2004 - Page updated at 08:08 A.M.

Judge no stranger to famous cases

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

King County Superior Court Judge William Downing was a conscientious objector.
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Although King County Superior Court Judge William Lansing Downing has been involved in many prominent cases, he wasn't particularly eager to tackle the polarized issue of same-sex marriage.

"No sane individual would want to take on their shoulders the sole responsibility for making a decision of such importance for society," he said in an interview yesterday after ruling that same-sex marriages are legal in Washington.

Downing had written in his opinion that he would "like nothing better than to stop at this point and, with a warm and sincere pat on the back, to send all parties off to the state Supreme Court or the state Legislature or both. Regrettably or not, such an abdication of responsibility is not an option."

That Downing, a former prosecutor, would make such a ruling — and issue an opinion that candidly describes his thought process — doesn't surprise those who know him. They describe him as scrupulously fair and thoughtful, a judge who isn't afraid to make a tough decision. At the same time, they describe a man who is empathetic to all parties in his courtroom.

"Whoever brought this case was lucky they had him. It takes someone courageous to do this," said John Henry Browne, a Seattle criminal-defense attorney who argued many cases against prosecutor Downing. "A lot of trial judges are afraid of any controversial issues so they'll do the least controversial thing. But Judge Downing will do what he thinks is right based on the law."

Read the opinion

Read the full text of Judge Downing's opinion [125K PDF].
Nor does Downing have a political agenda, Browne said. "I don't know if he is in favor of or opposed to gay marriage. But I know whatever his personal feelings are wouldn't affect his decisions."

Since his appointment to the bench in 1989, Downing has presided over major civil and criminal cases, including homicide and death-penalty trials. Before that, in his 11 years as a King County prosecutor, he argued some of its biggest cases, including the 1985 slaying of local attorney Charles A. Goldmark and his family, and the 1983 Wah Mee Massacre of 13 people in a Chinatown International District gambling parlor.

Downing expects a barrage of public opinion on his same-sex marriage ruling.

"If someone has read the opinion and wants to call me an idiot, that's fine," Downing said yesterday afternoon. "But they should read it first." He declined to discuss his decision further, saying, "the court's opinion has to speak for itself."

Downing, 54, is also known for treating people in his courtrooms with dignity and respect. Even as a prosecutor, he was someone "whom defendants would bond with," said Downing's close friend, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik.

"He doesn't lose track of the fact that he's dealing with real people and real people's lives, not just churning through a machine of justice."

In yesterday's opinion, for example, he described the plaintiffs as "law-abiding, tax-paying model citizens ... There is no worthwhile institution they would dishonor, much less destroy."

His empathy comes in part through his own experiences. Both of Downing's parents died when he was young. He graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and as a conscientious objector, worked in a psychiatric hospital during the Vietnam War. He also has worked as a deckhand on boats on the Mississippi River and on fishing boats out of Bellingham.

He has been married for 28 years to artist Laura Broeksmit Downing, whom he met at Vassar.

For years, he's helped high-school students argue mock cases before real judges and attorneys. Downing is also an avid motorcyclist and reader, citing Charles Dickens, William Faulkner and William Butler Yeats as some of his favorites.

Downing's love of language is apparent in the turns of phrase sprinkled in yesterday's opinion. He refers to the clash of values and issues in the case as the "wedlock deadlock" and to the link between marriage and procreation as "love, marriage and baby carriage."

His friend Lasnik, who went to law school with Downing at the University of Washington and was a fellow prosecutor and later fellow judge, said, "he's not as witty as he thinks he is," but allows that Downing is "wittier than the average judge."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or

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