Gregoire picks Spokane jurist for high court
Gov. Christine Gregoire today appointed state Court of Appeals Judge Debra Stephens of Spokane to the state Supreme Court, predicting she...
OLYMPIA — Gov. Christine Gregoire today appointed state Court of Appeals Judge Debra Stephens of Spokane to the state Supreme Court, predicting she would enjoy a "long and stellar" career on the bench.
In making the closely watched appointment to the high court, her first as governor, Gregoire picked a "twofer," a judge from Eastern Washington and a woman.
Stephens will succeed Justice Bobbe Bridge, a longtime social services and child welfare advocate who is retiring at the end of the month.
Stephens, 42, will have to run statewide next November to retain the seat. Gregoire noted that Stephens was re-elected to the appeals bench last month without opposition, and said she sees no problems with her appointee winning the full six-year term next fall.
"She is eminently well-qualified and will bring a dimension to the court that I think is significant," the governor told reporters after presenting Stephens to her new court colleagues in the Temple of Justice.
Chief Justice Gerry Alexander called Stephens a "terrific pick," and said the justices already know her well from her 100-plus appearances before them as an appellate attorney.
"I have the highest regard for her legal skills and her ability to do the job," the chief justice said in an interview. "She has Court of Appeals experience and it is important for us to have geographic diversity."
Stephens' appointment retains the current gender balance of five men and four women.
She is the first woman to serve from Eastern Washington and the first justice from east of the Cascades since former Chief Justice Richard Guy of Spokane retired in 2000. Justice Tom Chambers grew up in the Yakima Valley, but his law practice and court service have all been on the west side.
The appointment was unexpected. Most court-watchers had expected the choice to be Appeals Judge Mary Kay Becker, King County Superior Court Judge Mary Yu or constitutional law professor and attorney Hugh Spitzer.
Gregoire said it was a tough choice and that she initially picked three others before finalizing her selection of Stephens. She said it wasn't just that Stephens was a woman or from Eastern Washington, but that she finally concluded that Stephens was the best available choice, period.
"She's someone I believe will have a long and stellar career on the bench," the governor said in an interview.
Stephens, a 1993 Gonzaga Law School graduate, has limited judicial experience. She was appointed by the governor eight months ago to the Division III appeals bench serving Spokane and the northeastern counties. Before that, she was in private practice, specializing in appellate law.
Gregoire, who announced her pick in unusual ceremonies at the court chambers, Temple of Justice, lauded Stephens.
"Judge Stephens is a legal scholar who understands the importance of making the law relevant and meaningful to real people with real problems," the governor said.
"Her legal skills, experience, temperament, integrity and commitment are qualities that I believe will make her an excellent justice."
Asked later if her appointee's brief judicial service could prompt criticism, Gregoire said Stephens is one of a handful of appellate attorneys with as much experience before the high court. She is a legal scholar of note, serving as adjunct faculty at Gonzaga Law School and is active in her community and the Presbyterian Church, she said.
The governor said she asked Stephens to offer the court her skills as a consensus-builder. The court has been sharply divided, with numerous 5-4 decisions, Gregoire noted.
She said she didn't ask Stephens about her politics. The post is nonpartisan, but some jurists come to the bench with extensive political backgrounds, including serving in the Legislature. Stephens said her father, civic leader Jim Williams, ran for the Legislature as a Republican and has ties to the building industry, but that she has no political affiliation herself.
She said it's possible that two clashing interest groups, the trial lawyers and the homebuilders, might end up endorsing her. Property-rights activists "have nothing to fear from me," she said.
Stephens and her husband, Craig, have two children, Lindsey, a high school senior, and Bob, a sixth-grader. The family will move to Olympia after this school year, she said.
Guy, in remarks released by the governor office, praised the appointment.
"It is very important that the Washington state Supreme Court have the diversity of viewpoint that a justice from Eastern Washington brings to the bench," he said.
Earl Martin, dean of the Gonzaga Law School, said the appointment is cause for celebration at the law school.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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