Qualifications again high court issue


Associated Press

OLYMPIA — To be a candidate for the Washington Supreme Court, there is only one job requirement — membership in the state bar.

Considering the results of the September primary, the lack of minimum experience requirements is again a hot topic as four candidates compete for two open seats on the state’s highest court.

One race is between Susan Owens, a part-time judge who handles misdemeanors and small claims on the northwestern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, and Jeff Sullivan, an Eastern Washington prosecutor who has argued cases before the highest courts in the state and nation but has never served as a judge.

The other race pits Jim Foley, an Olympia lawyer with under 10 years of experience, against Tom Chambers, the head of a successful personal-injury law firm in Seattle.

Two of the four will win seats on a powerful nine-member court that considers such weighty issues as the legality of controversial initiatives, public financing for professional sports stadiums, limits on urban sprawl and the scope of police power.

Sullivan and Chambers were widely expected to win runoff spots in the September primary. But Foley and Owens, running shoestring campaigns, beat other candidates with more experience, connections and money.

It was enough to renew concerns about the value of gender, experience and a familiar-sounding name, as well as questions about the way judges get to the bench.

Newspaper editorials in Seattle and Tacoma, one citing "dubious results" in the primary, challenged the qualifications of Owens and Foley, and suggested the media should do a better job covering judicial races.

Chief Justice Richard Guy, whose upcoming retirement created one of the two vacancies, renewed his call for minimum experience requirements. Appeals Court Judge Ken Grosse, who finished third behind Chambers and Foley despite having arguably stronger credentials, said Washington should copy other states and have judges appear on the ballot for "retention" after being appointed to the bench by the governor.

Owens and Foley say such talk smacks of elitism. Both note that current Justices Charles Johnson and Barbara Madsen rose from obscurity to defeat better-known opponents and win respect as accomplished jurists.

"I think the voters have been just fine," Owens says.

Owens, the only woman in a seven-way race in the primary, dominated the field with 26 percent of the vote in the race for the court’s Position 2 seat. At first, she disputed any suggestion that her gender played a role, but she recently acknowledged that "I don’t think it hurt."

Owens has spent 19 years as a District Court judge in Clallam County, which means her cases have been limited to civil claims under $35,000 — a new law recently raised the ceiling to $50,000 — and misdemeanors punishable by up to one year in jail. She also works a few days a month as chief judge for the Lower Elwha S’Klallam tribe and travels extensively to train judges on handling domestic violence cases.

Owens says her limited jurisdiction is irrelevant since the laws and rules are the same throughout the court system. She estimates she has heard 10,000 civil and criminal cases and signed 10,000 arrest and search warrants.

She also touts her judicial leadership experience, noting she is president-elect of the District and Municipal Court Judges Association.

Her opponent, Yakima County Prosecutor Jeff Sullivan, says the Supreme Court needs a voice from Eastern Washington.

Sullivan, who says he’s backed by every elected county prosecutor in Washington, says his experience is more relevant than Owen’s.

He has prosecuted thousands of felonies and has defended the county in important civil actions involving liability claims and land issues. He has to analyze the law, just as a judge does, every time he decides whether to prosecute someone.

"She decides the punishment for traffic offenses and shoplifting," he says of Owens. "It’s not a knock on her. It’s just a fact."

In the race for the court’s Position 9 seat, Chambers has been frustrated by Foley’s ability to set the tone of the campaign.

In 1998, Foley finished second in a seven-way race for the high court. He attributed his performance to his message of small-town values, but most observers agreed it was probably because his name sounds like Tom Foley, the popular former congressman from Spokane.

Jim Foley, who maintains a solo law practice with offices in Olympia and rural Pacific County, is tired of hearing complaints about his name. It probably helped him in the 1998 primary, he says, but every newspaper article written about him points out that there is no connection between him and Tom Foley.

"Anybody who’s been half awake the last three years knows I’m not Tom Foley," he says.

He modified his strategy this year. Now he’s making a big deal out of his pledge to reject contributions from insurance companies, trial lawyers and political committees that typically aid judicial candidates.

It’s a low-risk tactic, since he received very little help in 1998.

But it has made Chambers uncomfortable.

Foley, who likes it when journalists call him a "country lawyer," notes that Chambers talks about his vast legal experience but doesn’t mention his focus on personal injury claims, making Foley wonder if Chambers is ashamed of his work.

Foley also notes that 15 of the state’s leading personal-injury lawyers have contributed to Chambers’ campaign, which he says would cause people to assume he would always side with them.

Chambers says hundreds of people have contributed to his campaign.

"I measure that as a measure of trust and respect and confidence in my ability to do the right thing," Chambers says.

Chambers wants voters to focus on experience. He has been a lawyer for more than 30 years — three times that of Foley — and has served as head of the state bar and the trial lawyer’s association.

He likens it to a patient visiting a cardiologist.

"You want some assurance this person has gone through internships and peer reviews," Chambers says. "To me, it’s really important that we have people who have proven themselves."

Grosse, the appellate judge who finished a distant third behind Chambers and Foley, endorses Chambers.

"Jim is an interesting guy and quite intelligent, but I don’t think he has the breadth of experience to be on the Supreme Court," Grosse says.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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