by Jeremy Leaming
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s selection last fall of a long-serving King County judge with a varied and sterling legal background to replace a retiring justice on the state’s high court, was widely lauded among the state’s legal community as a solid move, as Eli Sanders reported earlier this summer for the Seattle publication, the Stranger.
But the way in which that justice, Steve González, retained his seat yesterday in a statewide election should prompt state officials in Washington and for that matter the other states that choose to elect judges to reconsider the process.
Although González (pictured), among the state’s first of Latino heritage to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court, won his seat with 58 percent of the statewide vote, his challenger Bruce Danielson garnered 43 percent of the vote and carried 30 of 39 counties. Danielson did so, as Sanders reports, without raising any money and with his hometown Kitsap County Bar Association declaring he possessed “zero qualifications” to serve on the high court.
Sanders, as well as others in the state, took note of what occurred: with little information, many voters picked the guy with the “very, very white-sounding name.” The state, Sanders reported did not create and send out voter guides and only “6 or 7 counties” created guides. The state cited budgetary reasons for failing to educate voters.
Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington, told The Seattle Times that some voters simply would not vote for a guy named González, especially in areas dominated by anti-Latino sentiment.
“So it’s not rocket science; we know these things are happening,” Barretto said.
González overcame prejudice by raising and spending money to educate as many voters as possible.
Before being tapped by the governor, González had served ten years as a trial judge on the King County Superior Court, presiding over criminal, civil, juvenile and family law cases. Before that lengthy stint as a judge, he practiced criminal and civil law, and served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Western District of Washington. During his tenure as an Assistant U.S. Attorney he helped successfully prosecute a high-profile international terrorism case, for which he garnered two awards from the U.S. Department of Justice. Moreover, González has received outstanding ratings from an array of bar associations, such as the King County Bar Association, which deemed him “Exceptionally Well Qualified,” and the Tacoma Pierce County Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Committee, which did the same.
Danielson, however, never served as a judge and espoused the tired rightwing talking-points of judging. In other words he claimed he would attempt to interpret the state and federal constitutions in the manner in which their framers allegedly intended. “The Constitution should not be a living, breathing document that changes with the whims of the Court in response to politics or popular demand,” Danielson’s website states.
Perhaps more importantly the Bar Association in the county Danielson has practiced law soundly rejected his candidacy for the state bench.
Jennifer Forbes, president of the Kitsap County Bar Association, told Sanders in late June that the contest was “the most important race in the state,” because of the “horrifying” possibility that Danielson, “a person who’s unqualified – who has zero qualifications to be on the bench” could win.
That situation did not come to pass. But, as Sanders wrote, the results of the González victory were nonetheless clear and troubling: “rural voters, for the most part, pick the white guy over the Latino guy.”
If the state, Sanders concludes, wishes to continue to holding contests for state judgeships, it must spend money to conduct proper elections. Voter information must be created and sent to “every single eligible voter,” he wrote. Otherwise prejudice has a significant chance of shaping the make-up of the state’s courts.