Judge refuses to dismiss lawsuit over governor's election
But Judge John Bridges says Republicans must show enough illegal votes were cast in favor of Gregoire to erase her 129-vote victory margin.
Seattle Times chief political reporter
WENATCHEE — Judge John Bridges today refused several Democratic attempts to dismiss the governor's election lawsuit, saying allegations made in the case, if proven at trial, would be sufficient to overturn the election of Gov. Christine Gregoire.
Bridges also rejected Democratic arguments that any challenge of illegal votes by felons and others should have been made by Republicans before the election because they amount to problems with voter registration.
"This case should go forward, at least at this point," the Chelan County Superior Court judge said.
But he ruled that Republicans must show any illegal votes were cast in favor of Gregoire, and not Republican candidate Dino Rossi. There would have to be enough illegal Gregoire votes to erase her 129-vote victory margin.
Bridges said that if Republicans did prove their case, he would not order a new election for governor as they want him to do. Rossi has said that was the only remedy he would accept.
Democrats had argued the judge didn't have that power, and Bridges agreed. He said state law and the state constitution do not give him the power to order a new vote, which he called "special relief."
Some of the rulings were interpreted by both sides as victories. A transcript won't be available until next week, leaving some issues unclear. Both sides predicted the other would appeal some of the rulings.
Bridges' ruling on illegal votes raises the question of whether Republicans will have to prove their case vote by vote. The two sides see that differently. Republicans said they may only need to show enough illegal votes were cast that if they were broken down in the same proportion as all the other votes in the race, Gregoire's victory margin would be erased.
After Bridges' ruling that he wouldn't order a new election, Democrats cheered but Republicans said the judge still could nullify the November election, creating a vacancy in the office and allowing the Legislature to call for a special election.
In rejecting Democrats' move to dismiss the case, Bridges ruled that the lawsuit filed by Republicans belongs in the court, not the Legislature.
He also rejected a second Democratic motion that claimed the case should be heard by the Supreme Court, not superior court.
Democrats had argued that the court had no jurisdiction to hear the Republican lawsuit, which seeks to have the November governor's election thrown out and Gregoire removed from office.
Bridges ruled from the bench after hearing arguments from attorneys for the Democratic Party, for Republicans and Rossi, for the secretary of state's office and for some of the counties named in the lawsuit.
Bridges said he was rejecting the Democrats' claim "mindful of the admonition of this state's Supreme Court," which has said "the judiciary should exercise restraint in interfering with the election process which is reserved to the people."
Regarding the request to move the case to the Supreme Court, Bridges said: "This judge has concurrent jurisdiction with any other of the 176 Superior Court judges of the state of Washington or the 22 judges of the Courts of Appeal or the nine justices of the Supreme Court.
"This court will not accept the invitation to transfer this case to the Supreme Court."
After those defeats for Democrats, Republicans lost one round when Bridges dismissed all counties and county auditors from the case.
Attorneys for counties including King and Pierce told Bridges that Republicans had not shown why local officials needed to be in the case, which also names the secretary of state as a respondent.
Bridges agreed and referred to the cumbersome process of dealing with scores of attorneys in the courtroom by telephone.
"I can't see where their involvement ... is necessarily helpful to the court and probably in the efficient administration of justice they are ... more burdensome," Bridges said.
Republicans had argued that mistakes in counting, including failing to reconcile post-election voter lists, was evidence enough to warrant including counties in their case.
But attorneys for the counties said there was little if any evidence of wrongdoing.
"There has been no showing of misconduct by Pierce County," Daniel Hamilton, that county's deputy prosecuting attorney, told Bridges. "There has been no showing that the auditor has done anything wrong in Pierce County and I think that is probably true for the vast majority of counties."
The judge has not yet ruled on the validity of any of the Republicans' allegations, which outline various problems in counties' vote-counting and policing of registration rolls. County officials, including auditors and election officials, could still be subpoenaed to testify, and the counties will still be expected to provide information to Republicans as they seek evidence to show the election was flawed.
For the counties, Bridges' ruling means their prosecutors won't have to appear in court representing them as respondents. And they won't be served with the voluminous court documents, which some small-county officials have blamed for crashing their computer systems.
When the court broke for lunch, Democrats said they were unworried by Bridges refusal to dismiss the case or send it to the Supreme Court.
"It's going just fine," said David McDonald, the state Democratic Party counsel.
He said the judge's ruling means that the election contest, if it moves forward, will be governed by specific restrictions in state law. He said the dismissal of the counties and auditors will also make the case much simpler to administer.
Early in the day, Bridges turned his courtroom into an ad hoc constitutional law class, saying that before he would consider motions to dismiss the lawsuit he wanted lawyers for Democrats and Republicans to explain their cases to the full house of spectators.
Bridges said he wanted the attorneys to explain why they were in court "so everybody can put this in context."
Before taking that highly unusual step, Bridges gave his own mini lecture in the county auditorium that is being used to hold the growing number of spectators and attorneys who attend the court hearings.
He said he was going to "make some pretty important rulings" today, and he asked spectators to refrain from clapping or talking, "because No. 1, we're in a court of law and No. 2, in our country and our state we operate under what is called the rule of law."
People here who have argued cases before Bridges say he routinely takes time from the bench and in his written decisions to educate people about the legal theories behind his decisions.
Bridges said one of the cases referred to in motions filed last week is a disputed-election case from Arkansas in the 1800s — one in which state Supreme Court justices were kidnapped and two gubernatorial candidates showed up in court with their own militias.
"We think that is not what should go on in our system, not that I don't wish I was kidnapped and did not have to make a decision," Bridges joked.
Democratic Party Attorney Jenny Durkan told the courthouse crowd that Democrats believe the dispute over Gregoire's election should be settled by the Legislature, not the courts.
"When we stand up today and ask that this case be dismissed, it is no reflection on this court or this county," she said.
Attorney Harry Korrell, representing Republicans and Rossi, said Democrats and counties asking for the case to be thrown out "want to stop the evidence from coming in to court."
"It is simply impossible to know who won this election ... because of serious fundamental errors in the way the election was implemented," Korrell said.
"We think there are essential facts that need to come out. The voters want to hear it. I think everyone in the government wants the facts to come out and we want to restore some faith in our election system."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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