Lawmaker concerned about Puget Sound influence on high court
By HUNTER T. GEORGE
The Associated Press
1/14/01 2:02 PM
OLYMPIA (AP) -- Richard Guy's retirement from the Washington Supreme Court last week leaves the high-court bench without a voice from Eastern Washington.
With more and more people moving into the populous Puget Sound region, some observers wonder if there will ever be another.
The question bothered state Sen. Bob McCaslin enough to prompt him to file a pair of bills designed to ensure that the nine-member court isn't dominated by judges from the Interstate 5 corridor.
Under one proposal from the Spokane Republican, Supreme Court justices would be elected by congressional district, which would mean at least two members come from east of the Cascade Range.
An alternative measure piggybacks onto an existing elections system -- three justices would be elected from each of the state's three Court of Appeals divisions, which would boost to three the number from Washington's "dry" side.
McCaslin's proposals, Senate Bills 5045 and 5046, are scheduled to be discussed at a hearing Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The issue has been percolating in legal circles for years. But it has drawn renewed interest following the retirement of Guy, a Spokane native.
New Chief Justice Gerry Alexander lives in Olympia, and six other justices live in the Seattle and Tacoma areas.
Tom Chambers, one of two new justices who took office this week, emphasized his Eastern Washington upbringing during the fall campaign, but he spent the past few decades building a successful personal-injury law practice in Seattle. Susan Owens, the other new justice, is from Forks and has promised a much-needed rural perspective.
But McCaslin and others say it's just not enough. "If you look at the court makeup now, we have no one from Eastern Washington," McCaslin said Friday. "If nothing changes in the future, we will probably always have justices from King County, or the vast majority will be from King County."
To emphasize his point about Eastern Washington's diminishing clout, McCaslin even filed a resolution asking Congress to make the region the nation's 51st state.
Guy shares McCaslin's concerns about the difficulty faced by candidates from Eastern Washington seeking statewide election to the court.
But Guy notes that voters apparently aren't worried. Yakima County Prosecutor Jeff Sullivan, who lost to Owens, didn't even win Spokane County, though he was the only candidate from Eastern Washington. "I don't think there is a great crying need for geographic representation by the public," Guy said.
Sullivan disagrees. Electing judges from specific regions of the state would ensure someone on the high court understands that irrigation, for example, is a key factor in Eastern Washington's economy and not just something West-siders do when they hook up their garden hoses on a hot day, he said.
"Each of these justices bring their life experience to the court. That life experience is important," Sullivan said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Adam Kline, D-Seattle, could not be reached Friday. The panel's vice chairman, Democrat Dow Constantine of Seattle, said geographic representation is not as important in the judiciary as it is in the legislative branch.
"The law is the law is the law, regardless of what part of the state you're from," Constantine said, adding that McCaslin's proposals should spark a good discussion about what it takes to be a Supreme Court justice.
Alexander, the new chief justice, said he'd like a year to poll judges around the state for their views on the matter before deciding whether to support or oppose McCaslin's proposal.
McCaslin, conceding that neither measure stands much chance of passage, said he'd be happy if someone agreed to study the issue.
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