Some question racial comments by two state Supreme Court justices

SEATTLE — Two Washington Supreme Court justices stunned some participants at recent meeting when they made comments suggesting that racial bias plays no significant role in the criminal justice system, The Seattle Times reported Friday.

Justices James Johnson and Richard Sanders both said during the Oct. 7 meeting in Olympia that the reason blacks are over-represented in the prison population is because they commit more crimes.

Johnson also reportedly used the term “poverty pimp.” Though it wasn’t clear what he meant by the remark, the term typically refers to workers who supposedly provide legal services to the poor for their own gain, The Times reported.

The comments came during a meeting with staff from the Administrative Office of the Courts, a Kitsap County District Court judge and a social-justice advocate from the Seattle University School of Law. They were presenting a report on improving the effectiveness of boards and commissions set up by the Supreme Court to ensure fair treatment for minorities.

Sanders, who is in a re-election fight this fall, told The Times he stands by his remarks. He said certain minority groups are “disproportionally represented in prison because they have a crime problem.”

Sanders also noted that he has a reputation for siding with defendants whose cases come to the high court. His concern is for individuals, he said, and if someone is in prison for any reason other than committing the crime, “I want to hear about it.”

Johnson did not respond to several requests for comment, The Times reported. A staff member in Johnson’s chambers told The Associated Press on Friday that Johnson would not be available until next week.

Blacks make up about 4 percent of Washington’s population but 17 percent of people under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. Similar disparities nationwide have been attributed by some researchers in part to sentencing practices, inadequate legal representation and drug-enforcement policies that unfairly affect blacks.

Kitsap County District Court Judge James Riehl told The Times he was stunned because, as a trial judge for 28 years, he was “acutely aware” of barriers to equal treatment in the legal system.

Riehl also said it was troubling that Johnson used the term “poverty pimp” in a meeting where the comment didn’t relate to the presentation, and that it was made in front of staff and Seattle University representative Ada Shen-Jaffe, who has a background in providing legal services to the poor.

Shen-Jaffe objected to the comments and invited Johnson to talk to her about them informally, some at the meeting recalled.

Justice Debra Stephens, who also has been a strong advocate for providing free legal services to the poor and who was a volunteer supervising attorney at Gonzagas University’s Legal Assistance clinic, said she was surprised by the “poverty pimp” remark.

“If that were directed at me, I would have felt accused,” Stephens said. She added that she did not believe that was Johnson’s intent, but that he chose an unfortunate phrase.

Stephens also told the newspaper that she heard Johnson use the words “you all” or “you people” when he stated that African-Americans commit crimes in their own communities.

Shirley Bondon, a manager with the Administrative Office of the Courts who oversees programs to remove barriers in the legal system, prompted the discussion when she told the justices that she believed there was racial “bias in the criminal-justice system, from the bottom up.”

Bondon, a 50-year-old black woman, said Sanders then asked for the name of anyone who was in prison because of one of the barriers and said he didn’t believe such barriers existed — except for poverty, since it might restrict the ability to afford an attorney.

Johnson agreed with Sanders and went on to say that he believed certain people are taken advantage of; it was in that context that he used the term “poverty pimp,” Bondon said.

Johnson made clear that he didn’t think the court’s boards and commissions should be funded and said the meeting was costing $25,000 in people’s time that could be used for better purposes, Riehl said.

Justice Susan Owens said she heard the comments but didn’t understand what Johnson meant by “poverty pimp,” though she added that she didn’t believe he was directing the term at anyone in particular.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said she didn’t hear the “poverty pimp” comment, but stopped the conversation because she didn’t think it was productive.

Bondon wrote to The Seattle Times that she was stunned by Sanders’ remarks.

“I know that people in all walks of life hold biases, but it was stunning to hear a justice of the Supreme Court make these outrageous comments in my presence,” she wrote.

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