STATE Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson’s departure for health reasons leaves something of a void on the court.
“I’m the only one who has ever owned a water right,” Johnson declared during one of his endorsement interviews at The Seattle Times. Though a water right certainly is not necessary to be a justice, the observation is emblematic of the importance of diversity of experience among court members.
No doubt Gov. Jay Inslee is weighing that factor along with judicial philosophy and temperament as he considers whom to appoint to fill Johnson’s seat. The appointee will have to stand for election in November.
An unabashed populist, Johnson brought an important perspective to the court that has more than its share of members who favor government over individuals. That is especially true on the issue of open government — something Inslee cares about. Johnson was the lone dissenter when the high court ruled the governor could use executive privilege to keep information out of the public eye. Admirably, Inslee pledged not to.
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Though Johnson is a Seattle native, he has a deep understanding of issues facing natural resources-based economies far beyond the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma corridor from his time leading the state attorney general’s Fish and Wildlife Division, and as Counsel of the Environment.
So does the governor. Inslee practiced law in the Yakima Valley, represented that area in the Legislature and served Central Washington in Congress in the early 1990s before moving west of the Cascades.
The governor should consider appointing a justice from Eastern Washington, which has more than 23 percent of the state’s 22 appellate court judges, because they are elected by geographic division, but fewer than 10 percent of its Supreme Court members. Although Justice Debra Stephens hails from that side of the state, she is from its most urban spot, Spokane. Justice Susan Owens comes from Forks, a rural Clallam County community. The rest of the justices come from the populous and more urban King, Pierce or Kitsap counties.
Remember the governor’s campaign ads showing him in the middle of a state map with his arms outstretched to both sides of the Cascades? Surely, the former Selah attorney would know some fine judges or lawyers from the Columbia Basin who might make a fine justice.
One excellent choice would be Judge Cameron Mitchell, a Benton-Franklin County Superior Court judge appointed by Gov. Gary Locke in 2004. Mitchell was a well-respected finalist for the recently filled U.S. District Court seat. An African American, he was a recipient of the 2012 Columbia Basin College Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award.
Closer to Inslee’s old stomping ground, there are Yakima County Superior Court judges Doug Federspiel and Ruth Reukauf, the latter also a Locke appointee. Both also have been mentioned as having considerable skills and impressive perspective, plus they know the challenges facing more rural courts.
The opportunity to appoint a justice doesn’t happen often. Gov. Inslee should consider appointing an Eastern Washington justice.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).