Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders says that he yelled "Tyrant!" at U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey during a Federalist Society speech in which Mukasey later collapsed at the podium.
Richard Sanders, a justice on the Washington State Supreme Court, has never been one to shy from controversy or blunt language. And last week, as he sat at a Federalist Society dinner and listened to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Sanders reached his boiling point.
After listening to Mukasey defend the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies — its detainment practices at Guantánamo Bay, its interpretation of the Geneva Conventions’ reach — Sanders stood and shouted “Tyrant! You are a tyrant!”
“Frankly, everybody in the room was applauding or sometimes laughing, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to stand up and say something.’ And I did,” Sanders told The Seattle Times on Tuesday. “I stood up and said, ‘Tyrant,’ then I sat down again, then I left.”
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It wasn’t until the next morning — when he turned on the TV in his hotel room — that Sanders learned what happened after he departed: Mukasey, later in his speech, began slurring his words, slumped at the podium and passed out. He was taken to a hospital, where he was released the next day after getting a clean bill of health.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sanders said of the news that Mukasey had fainted.
Mukasey’s collapse occurred well after Sanders shouted at him, and the two events appear unrelated.
The dinner, which took place in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, was hosted by the Federalist Society, a prominent collection of conservative judges and lawyers. Sanders, a state Supreme Court justice since 1995, belongs to the group.
In the initial days after the event, Sanders, when questioned by other reporters, danced around whether he was the person who shouted at Mukasey. He wouldn’t confirm it, nor would he deny it.
But on Tuesday, Sanders told The Seattle Times that he’d simply reached the point where he couldn’t remain silent.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine there would be any mention of this in the press,” he said. “But here we are.”
The state’s Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to be “dignified” toward those they deal with “in their official capacity.”
Asked if his outburst might violate that code, Sanders said: “Well, it’s so open-ended and vague, maybe someone would think that it could apply. I don’t know. I think it’s a free-speech activity. In my mind, this had nothing to do with my role as a judge.”
Asked if it was dignified, Sanders said: “I think it was an impulse. … At that particular time, I didn’t have a chance to reflect on it. I didn’t plan it out in advance. It just happened.”
He left before Mukasey’s speech was finished, Sanders said, because “I wasn’t enjoying myself.”
Sanders said he wouldn’t call what he did heckling. Afterward, he said, he heard from a number of people — some supportive, others not. “Some people think it was the wrong thing to do,” he said. “To other people, it was heroic.”
Sanders said he now regrets what he did: “If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t.”
Alternatively, he wishes he had said “Tyranny” instead of “Tyrant,” “because in my mind, these policies can lead to tyranny.”
Sanders stood and yelled about halfway through the speech by Mukasey, who was wearing a tuxedo with an American flag pin on his left lapel. Mukasey had just finished saying how he was “quite familiar” with criticisms of the administration’s counterterrorism policies, “having heard many of them myself during my tenure as attorney general.”
At the sound of Sanders’ words, Mukasey looked up and paused for about five seconds. Then he continued with his prepared remarks, saying: “Now it is hardly surprising that the questions of how we confront the terrorism threat should generate vigorous debate.”
Three years ago, Sanders was admonished — the state’s least severe disciplinary action for judges — for violating the judicial-ethics rules in connection with a visit to the state’s sex-offender treatment center on McNeil Island. The visit prompted a variety of concerns because judges are prohibited from speaking with litigants about their cases outside the courtroom.
During the visit, the Judicial Conduct Commission alleged, Sanders talked to sexual offenders and accepted documents from two of them.
In 1997, Sanders was reprimanded for speaking at a rally for abortion opponents, but that sanction was later overturned by an appellate panel.
Sanders said he took offense at what he believed was Mukasey’s cavalier attitude toward the Geneva Conventions.
In his speech, Mukasey said that almost every article in the treaty is “plainly addressed to armed conflicts among the nations that signed the Conventions. It is hardly surprising that the United States concluded that those provisions would not apply to the armed conflict against al-Qaida, an international terrorist group and not, the last time I checked, a signatory to the Conventions.”
Sanders, on Tuesday, said that being a signatory was beside the point. “I didn’t sign the Geneva Conventions, you didn’t sign the Geneva Conventions, but the United States did sign the Conventions. And that’s the point, isn’t it?”
He also took umbrage at the Bush administration’s detention policies at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, saying: “I think it’s a disgrace to hold people without charge, without trial, to hold them incommunicado.”
John Strait, a Seattle University School of Law professor who teaches judicial ethics, said it was unlikely the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission would take any action against Sanders.
“Even judges are allowed to lose their temper in private settings,” Strait said. “And yelling ‘Tyrant’ at the current attorney general would probably resonate with a lot of people, under the current circumstances.”
It’s also unlikely that Sanders’ actions would require him to recuse himself from any cases, because counterterrorism matters typically land in federal court, not state court, Strait said.
“I think what it says is that Justice Sanders was unhappy with Mr. Mukasey, and elected to vote with his feet and speak truth to power,” Strait said.
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or email@example.com