Weak accusations against Justice Sanders

The News Tribune


Olympia, WA - The actions giving rise to ethics charges against Washington Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders amount to a very small molehill.

Although the state Commission on Judicial Conduct may have had enough evidence to go after Sanders, the facts supporting the charges are hardly the stuff of scandal. Sanders' actions simply don't add up to judicial misconduct worth worrying about.

The charges stem from Sanders' visit to the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island last year. He wanted to get a first-hand look at what goes on at the commitment center, which houses and treats sexual predators who have finished their prison terms.

Nothing wrong with that. Too often judges have rendered flawed, impractical decisions because the legal issues arose out of unfamiliar situations. Sanders' curiosity about the way things really work is a trait other members of the bench should share.

Where he may have crossed the line was in having conversations with more than 15 residents, some of whom had cases that could be decided by Sanders and his Supreme Court colleagues. Sanders spoke with them on a variety of topics, including their criminal histories and their thoughts on whether they were able to control their sexually violent behavior. He also accepted two documents from residents who had cases on appeal.

According to the commission, Sanders' conduct violated rules requiring judges to act in a manner that upholds judicial integrity and avoids the appearance of impropriety. Judges are also barred from engaging litigants in out-of-court communications on cases they may have to decide.

Any misconduct by Sanders appears to have been inadvertent and not the product of greed, malice, prejudice or other impermissible motives. Even if he violated judicial conduct rules, it's hard to see how his actions weakened the public's faith in the Supreme Court's ability to fairly decide cases filed by SCC residents.

Recusal is the usual remedy for judicial bias or perception of bias. Sanders has already recused himself from an appeal filed by six sex predators housed at the facility.

Sanders is no stranger to controversy. The commission reprimanded him in 1997 for speaking at an anti-abortion rally. Sanders deserved that criticism, although he was cleared on appeal a year later.

In this case, Sanders had good intentions but may have inadvertently made improper contact. He later recused himself. No harm, no foul.



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