The bench test: a judicial primer

“Who,” a caller asked, “am I supposed to vote for in these judicial races? Will the Review be making any endorsements?”

We had to confess that we’d been paying less attention than we ought to those seeking seats on the bench. But we knew whom to call – the excellent Charlie Wiggins, Bainbridge Island attorney and former Court of Appeals judge, who was kind enough to offer guidance for those equally vexed when the candidates don’t come with a convenient “R” or “D” next to their name. Charlie writes:

“Who are all these candidates for the State Supreme Court? In this primary, fourteen people vie for the opportunity to sit on one of the three Supreme Court positions up for election this year. It’s not unusual that six seek election to position 1; open seats usually draw many candidates. The races for positions 5 and 6 are unusual in that hopefuls in those races challenge veteran incumbents. Incumbent Justice Barbara Madsen is challenged by King County Judge Terry Lukens, a contest that will be decided in the primary. Five hopefuls challenge incumbent Justice Richard Sanders for position 6.

“How is a voter to choose the best judicial candidate from such a crowded field? The starting point is the Voters’ Guide (if you’ve misplaced yours, look for it online at www.secstate.wa.gov). Consider the endorsements of the candidates by newspapers, organizations and individuals. The video voters’ guide at www.tvw.org www.tvw.org is also helpful. One of the most comprehensive and rigorous evaluations of judicial candidates is found at www.kcba.org, the King County Bar Association (KCBA) site. The financial support given to a candidate can be found at www.pdc.wa.gov. My own article on this subject can be found at www.appeal-law.com/articles/elect.html. Some of the candidates have their own web sites.

What should you look for in a candidate? Here are the most important qualities of judges, and some ways to identify them.

• Independence and impartiality: A judge must be free of outside influences and must approach each case with an open mind. If the candidate is a lawyer, look at his or her client base—has the candidate represented a broad variety of clients? If a judge, has the candidate earned the respect of the bar and public for impartial decisions? Consider the candidate’s financial support; is the candidate supported by a broad spectrum, or by a narrow range of special interest groups?

• Competence: The law is a technical field and judging is a complex task. A judge needs a good, solid background of working with the law and the rules of procedure and evidence that govern lawsuits. The bench is not a good place for on-the-job training.

• Ability to work hard: Our courts are busy and judges must work hard. A judge is not really subject to supervision by anyone else, so he or she must be highly motivated and a self-starter.

• Management skills: Judges must deal with ever-increasing caseloads and must orchestrate the efforts of many different people to move cases efficiently and fairly.

• Ideological viewpoint: All judicial candidates have personal opinions and beliefs. But judges must take an oath to “support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Washington” and to “faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office of judge.”

• A heart for justice: The quality I consider the most important is also the hardest to measure and evaluate: a burning desire in the judge’s heart to do what is fair between the parties within the limits of the law, a striving to decide every case in a way that is not only right under the law but just under the circumstances.”

So, thanks to Charlie Wiggins for these sage comments. He also provided an informative look at each of the 14 state Supreme Court hopefuls; his complete analysis can be found on our website at www.bainbridgereview.com; click on “Elections.”

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