Unlike 2006, state Supreme Court primary gets little attention from interest groups

OLYMPIA — This year’s primary races for state Supreme Court are a far cry from the high-stakes, big-money battle just two years ago.

Compared with the more than $2.1 million that rolled in during the 2006 primary, only about $200,000 has been raised this time around, mostly by the three incumbents.

Up for re-election are Justices Mary Fairhurst and Charles Johnson. Justice Debra Stephens, who was appointed in January to replace Justice Bobbe Bridge, is facing voters for the first time but is running unopposed in the primary, so she will advance unopposed in November as well.

Absent this year: involvement by special interest groups that funneled much of the 2006 money into the contentious primary race between attorney John Groen and Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.

“After so much money was poured into the elections two years ago, some of those interest groups have decided to focus their attention on the governor’s race,” said Cornell Clayton, a professor of political science at Washington State University.

The Supreme Court races are among many that are being overshadowed by the rematch between Gov. Chris Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi. Gregoire beat Rossi in 2004 by just 133 votes, following three vote tallies and a failed Republican court challenge.

Fairhurst’s seat will likely be decided Aug. 19 — a candidate that tops 50 percent in the two-way primary will advance unopposed to the general ballot Nov. 4.

Fairhurst, who has served six years on the court, is seeking re-election to a second term. She has raised more than $100,000. Her opponent, Michael Bond, is a partner in a Seattle law firm. He’s raised a little more than $11,000, with nearly half of that amount in loans to himself.

Fairhurst narrowly won her seat in 2002 and said the closeness of the last race meant she wasn’t taking anything for granted this year.

“I didn’t really know what to expect so we prepared for any eventuality,” she said.

Bond said he’s not worried by his lack of money.

“In terms of special interests, I’m beholden to no one, and would like to think the race could be based on ideas,” he said.

Johnson, who has drawn two primary challengers, is the only incumbent who may face an opponent in November. But neither C.F. “Frank” Vulliet nor James Beecher, both of Seattle, had raised any money by late July.

Vulliet, a self-described “self-employed, semiretired” attorney who is currently living at his second home in Sun River, Ore., was recently suspended from practicing law because he’s not current on continuing education requirements. Vulliet said he’ll attempt to get reinstated.

Beecher, a partner in a Seattle law firm, served as a prosecutor in the Seattle city attorney’s office and as a senior trial lawyer in the attorney general’s office.

Beecher said that he’s running because the court “needs a boost.”

“This is nothing personal,” he said. “I just think it’s healthier for the court to have someone added to the court who has wide experience.”

Johnson is associate chief justice and has been on the high court 18 years, making him the court’s most senior member. He said he’s ready to take his election bid to November, but hopes his experience will get him enough support to win it in the primary.

“The experience factor cannot be understated,” Johnson said. “We have to know hundreds of issues, from death penalty to attorney discipline to zoning regulations. A lot of that stuff is foreign to a person who has not been involved in it.”

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