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Saturday, July 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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4 to challenge Supreme Court justice

Times chief political Reporter

OLYMPIA — First-term Supreme Court Justice Susan Owens will face four opponents in the September primary. It's unclear, though, how many really want to defeat her.

State Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Kent, has long been the only announced opponent and has solid backing from business groups and other conservative forces.

In the last two days of the filing period for this year's primary, another Johnson joined the race. Michael Johnson, a Seattle attorney, said he will not raise any money or seek any endorsements.

He filed for office Thursday. In an interview Friday he initially said he didn't talk to anyone associated with Owens before joining the race. But he called back to say that a few days before filing he talked with someone in the Owens' campaign and gave them a "head's up" that he would join the race.

He said he couldn't remember whom he talked to.

"But there was there no substantive discussion or planning," he said.

Owens' campaign manager Kristen Olbrechts said no one talked to her and she had never heard of Johnson before he filed.

There are other consultants and campaign workers, but Olbrechts said no one said anything about hearing from Johnson.

The Seattle Times called Johnson back to ask for more details about the call, but he wouldn't answer any more questions. He said he was considering hiring a media consultant to deal with reporters.

Johnson said he is an "issue candidate" in the race to campaign against Steve Johnson's financial backing.

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"I think it's a real shame that judicial elections, especially to the high court, have come down to almost purchasing elections through PAC money," he said.

Owens is supported by political-action committees, too. But Johnson said he will focus on Steve Johnson.

He also will campaign on "the name issue." There are already two Johnsons on the Supreme Court and he suggested Steve Johnson is hoping to rely on people's confusion to attract votes.

Also joining the race Thursday was environmental attorney Richard Smith of Seattle. He did not respond to calls asking for comment.

Smith has been on the board of the Washington Environmental Council, an environmental group whose political arm, Washington Conservation Voters, has endorsed Owens.

If the race had remained a two-person contest, the winner of the September primary would have been elected outright to the court. With five people now in the race, it is likely the top two finishers will move on to the November general election.

That is seen as a boost for Owens, because the November election draws a larger, more liberal pool of voters, former Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge said.

It is a felony to enter a race against someone with a similar name "with intent to confuse and mislead the electors."

Also in the race against Owens is Norman Ericson, a career state employee who serves as an administrative-review judge in Olympia. Like Smith and Michael Johnson, he, too, is concerned about the influence of special-interest money. But he says he's equally concerned about its effect on Steve Johnson and Owens.

As expected, Justice Tom Chambers drew a last-minute opponent.

But former King County Superior Court Judge Jeanette Burrage, who filed Friday, says she was not recruited by conservative Christian activists who have said they wanted to defeat the first-term justice.

Burrage, a former state legislator, served five years on Superior Court before losing a close re-election race. She has run a number of unsuccessful campaigns, including the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

Burrage was a controversial figure. During her tenure she was the judge with the most affidavits of prejudice filed against her, the requests filed by attorneys for their cases to be transferred to other judges.

Chief Justice Gerry Alexander faces property-rights attorney John Groen of Bellevue.

David Postman: 360-236-8267 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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