Justice Richard Sanders, as usual, draws fire from two election opponents
State Supreme Justice Richard Sanders, facing two opponents in the Aug. 17 primary election, is once again defending his judicial record as he seeks a fourth term on the bench.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Family: Wife Nancy, two grown children
Residence: Bainbridge Island
Education: Bachelor of arts in philosophy, Princeton University, 1969; master's in business administration, University of Hawaii, 1972; law degree, Duke University, Durham, 1976
Legal experience: Practicing attorney, 33 years; Washington state Court of Appeals judge, 11 months, 1995; Superior Court judge pro tem in King and Jefferson counties, 1996-present.
Family: Wife Jennifer, no children
Education: Bachelor of arts in business administration, University of Washington, 1974; law degree, University of Puget Sound Law School, 1977
Legal experience: Practicing attorney, 19 years; Pierce County Superior Court Judge, 1997-present; presiding judge, 2009-present
Family: Not married, grown daughter
Residence: Vashon Island
Education: Bachelor of arts in political science, University of Washington, 1966; law degree, University of Washington School of Law, 1969
Legal experience: Practicing attorney, 26 years; Washington State Supreme Court justice, 1995-present
The last time Richard Sanders ran for re-election in 2004, five opponents jumped into the race for his state Supreme Court seat.
Six years later, only two challengers have emerged in the Aug. 17 primary election.
But the ever-controversial Sanders is again fending off criticism about his record that has dogged him since he first joined the court 15 years ago — criticism that has yet to faze voters who keep returning him to the state's highest court.
This time, Bainbridge Island attorney Charlie Wiggins and Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff are challenging Sanders, painting him as an agenda-driven judge who is incapable of being impartial.
Sanders, who is seeking his fourth term on the bench, bristles at the accusation.
"I stand up for the people who come to court," said Sanders, 65, a libertarian who defies easy labels. He appeals to a mix of criminal-defense attorneys, gun-ownership proponents, property-rights advocates, anti-abortion supporters and personal-injury attorneys.
For a while, the race appeared to be a two-man battle between Sanders and Wiggins, which would have settled the contest in the primary.
But the equation changed when Chushcoff, 58, entered at the filing deadline in June, making it more likely the contest would carry over to the November election. One candidate would have to get more than 50 percent of the vote to win the seat outright in the primary — something Sanders considers attainable after garnering 60 percent in the 2004 general election.
The impact of Chushcoff's candidacy is hard to measure.
Unlike Sanders and Wiggins, Chushcoff is not soliciting campaign contributions, saying he doesn't want to be distracted by fundraising — a decision that limits his ability to spread his message through advertising.
Still, Chushcoff hails from a large county, where he is the presiding judge of the Superior Court, and he believes he has a reasonably good chance to finish at least second in the primary and move on to the general election.
Wiggins, 62, who has been an attorney for 33 years, is aggressively pursuing the seat, asserting that Sanders has failed to uphold ethical standards and sides too often with criminals and disciplined lawyers.
Despite Sanders' success in past elections, Wiggins said he believes voters have had enough time to see a "different picture" of the justice.
Wiggins points to Sanders' admonishment for improper judicial conduct in one case and an alleged conflict of interest in another.
In 2005, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct admonished Sanders for visiting detainees at a state sex-offender-treatment center, including some patients who had cases pending before the court. In a unanimous ruling, nine lower-court judges sitting as state Supreme Court justices pro tem upheld that admonishment.
Last year, the state Supreme Court withdrew a landmark public-records ruling written by Sanders after the losing party, King County, which stood to pay about $800,000, complained that Sanders had a conflict of interest.
Lawyers for King County argued that Sanders didn't disclose that the ruling impacted a public-disclosure lawsuit that he had filed in Thurston County in 2005 against the state attorney general.
Sanders withdrew from the King County case, and the state Supreme Court issued a new opinion in March that kept much of the same reasoning but cut about half the county's fine for inexcusable delays in responding to a request for documents.
Sanders continues to defend his visit to the detainment center, contending judges should visit prisons because they send people there.
He also dismisses the conflict claim in the public-records case, maintaining he wrote a great opinion that did not benefit him.
Wiggins also cites Sanders' record in divided rulings involving criminal defendants and disciplined lawyers. In campaign literature, he asserts that Sanders voted in favor of defendants more than 94 percent of the time in over 350 cases regardless of the facts. And Wiggins said Sanders voted 90 percent of the time for no or lighter discipline against sanctioned attorneys who come before the court.
In response, Sanders assailed Wiggins, calling him a "character assassin" who is using misleading statistics.
Wiggins' figures don't include unanimous opinions and the 90 percent of criminal cases in which the court denies review, Sanders said.
"I don't decide cases by statistics," Sanders said, emphasizing he reviews each on the merits.
Similarly, Sanders said, Wiggins is distorting his record on attorney discipline, excluding many cases that are routinely affirmed by the court. For example, Sanders said, in 2008 and 2009 he was in the majority on all but two discipline cases.
Chushcoff also is critical of Sanders. While praising Sanders for his intelligence and courage, Chushcoff added, "I do think he makes calls on the basis of personal policy preference."
As a result, Sanders often concludes "government is rarely right about anything," Chushcoff said.
Chushcoff said Sanders also resists consensus building that, like jury verdicts, can lead to decisions that people trust.
Sanders, a prolific dissenter, replied: "To quote General Patton, if everybody is thinking alike, then somebody is not thinking."
His job, Sanders said, is to protect rights, whether they be of criminals, property owners or people in the workplace.
Sanders' libertarian views didn't extend to one of the court's most contentious cases, when in 2006 he joined the majority in upholding the state's ban on gay marriage.
At the time of the decision, Sanders said he thought about whether he was contradicting his long-standing position that often makes him the voice against deference to the Legislature.
"I don't think so," he said. "I think that if I thought that someone's constitutional rights were being violated, even if it was a singular, unpopular person, I'd be the first to strike down the legislative enactment."
But there was no fundamental right under the state constitution to same-sex marriage that was violated by the ban, he said.
In every case he hears, Sanders said recently, he must base his opinion on the facts and law.
Chushcoff and Wiggins said they are better suited to do that.
A self-described moderate, Wiggins served briefly in 1995 on the state Court of Appeals in Tacoma after he was appointed to the seat. He lost in an election that year but has said he found he had the ability to serve as an appellate judge.
As an attorney, according to Wiggins, he has handled appellate cases in every state appeals court, covering all varieties of law. While most of his experience is in civil law, he has done some criminal work, he said. He also has served as a substitute judge in King and Jefferson counties and served as a leader overseeing bar-disciplinary cases.
Chushcoff has served as a Pierce County Superior Court judge since 1997, handling a wide range of criminal and civil cases, and was elected presiding judge in January 2009. As presiding judge, he has dealt with budget cuts while preserving court services, he said.
Sanders, before becoming a justice, practiced law for 26 years.
Sanders and Wiggins have both collected a long list of endorsements, with Sanders pointing to a broad spectrum of supporters and Wiggins to nods from more than 70 current and former judges in Washington and 30 prosecutors in the state. Chushcoff is not seeking endorsements.
As of Wednesday, Sanders reported raising nearly $156,000 in campaign contributions and Wiggins nearly $140,000, much of it for a final advertising push before the primary.
Chushcoff, meanwhile, said he will consider raising funds if he is a candidate in the general election.
Information from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.