Two years after he lost his state Supreme Court seat in the wake of controversial comments about race and crime, Richard Sanders is running again in a crowded primary field.
Two years after narrowly losing his state Supreme Court seat in the wake of controversial comments about race and crime, Richard Sanders is running again in a crowded primary field.
Sanders is waging his comeback bid knowing that, despite the controversy, he garnered just shy of 50 percent of the vote in his 2010 loss to Charlie Wiggins and still enjoys broad name recognition, having served three terms on the court.
He faces three other candidates for the open seat: Bruce Hilyer, a longtime King County Superior Court judge; John Ladenburg, who has served as Pierce County’s prosecuting attorney and county executive; and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, a Seattle attorney and veteran appellate lawyer who last year won a new trial for a man on Washington’s death row.
The seat is being vacated by retiring Justice Tom Chambers.
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Sanders once again is pointing to his record as a defender of individual rights; Hilyer is citing his 12 years of practical experience as a trial judge; Ladenburg is relying on his broad background in law and public service; and McCloud is underscoring her 25 years of fighting for constitutional rights.
The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 7 primary will advance to the Nov. 6 general election, unless one emerges with more than 50 percent and automatically wins the six-year term.
Sanders has long been known for his outspokenness, but his comments two years ago put him on the defensive late in the 2010 campaign. The Seattle Times reported that during a court meeting that October, Sanders and Justice James Johnson disputed the view that racial discrimination plays a significant role in the disproportionate number of blacks in prison.
Sanders defended his stance at the time, saying “certain minority groups” are “disproportionally represented in prison because they have a crime problem.”
As a result, The Times editorial board, which is independent of the newsroom, withdrew its endorsement of Sanders and backed Wiggins.
Sanders later said his comments had been misconstrued. In truth, he said, he believed people commit crimes because of their circumstances and not because of their race.
“I thought it was ironic the way this thing sort of spun out of control in 2010, because … I tried harder than anybody on the court to make sure that the rights of every individual were respected,” he said in a recent interview.
For some of his supporters — who have included criminal-defense attorneys, gun owners, property-rights advocates, abortion opponents and personal-injury attorneys — his remarks might have been a tipping point after other controversies.
During his last term, Sanders withdrew from a public-records case over a conflict-of-interest allegation and was admonished for improper judicial conduct for visiting detainees at the state sex-offender treatment center, including some who had cases pending before the court.
He also drew attention when in 2006 he joined the court’s majority in upholding the state’s ban on gay marriage, despite his libertarian views.
Yet Sanders, 67, has always had a loyal following and is counting on that in his bid to return to the court.
“I think the court needs a voice like mine, someone that’s concerned about the fate of the private citizen, that doesn’t defer to the government and wants to have a level playing field,” he said.
He points to his record of supporting workers’ rights and open government, and 15 years on the Supreme Court and broad experience as an appellate attorney, saying those are core components of a first-rate justice.
Sanders said he would serve only one term because of a mandatory retirement age of 75. Even with that limitation, he said, he is best qualified and wouldn’t have a “learning curve.”
Experienced trial judge
Hilyer, 61, who has been on the Superior Court bench since 2000, said his experience as a trial judge makes him best suited for the court because he can see “problems from many different angles, which we expect our judges to do.”
He also cites his administrative ability, noting that as presiding judge from 2008 to 2010 he steered the court through a budget crisis and kept the courts open on normal hours in the face of pressure to cut back. Switching to an electronic filing system saved $1 million annually, Hilyer said.
“I think that experience can be useful on the Supreme Court,” he said, singling out the use of paper records in the state’s appellate courts as something that needs to be addressed.
From his experience as a trial judge, Hilyer said, he believes the Supreme Court needs to send clear, narrowly tailored messages to the lower courts and avoid “unintended consequences” in its rulings. Appellate courts need to show a “little humility” in reaching decisions, he said.
To achieve those goals, Hilyer said, he would seek consensus and compromise and not use his vote as a “soapbox” to push a personal ideology.
Hilyer said the Supreme Court’s gay-marriage ruling sent the wrong message. Having witnessed juvenile-court cases, he said, he has seen the need for family stability.
Before taking the bench, Hilyer served as a deputy prosecutor and legal counsel to Seattle Mayor Charles Royer in the 1980s, then went into private practice.
Winning new trials
McCloud, 56, a former public defender, has argued appellate cases statewide, primarily in criminal matters but some civil issues as well.
She said she is the most qualified candidate because she has the “perfect” experience of arguing constitutional rights before the Supreme Court for 25 years.
“I think that constitutional rights are really important,” she said. “I think they impact every part of our everyday lives, from privacy rights to whether kids get a fully funded education.”
In May, McCloud won a new trial for a man sentenced to death 18 years earlier in the killings of his wife and business partner in Clallam County. In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with McCloud that prosecutors wrongfully suppressed favorable evidence.
McCloud said the outcome relied on a basic, old rule that evidence can’t be hidden from a defendant.
Her judicial philosophy, she said, is tailored along the same lines: “boring,” because she would decide each case based on the facts, applying constitutional principles and the law.
“I don’t approach it with an ideology,” said McCloud, who also won a new murder trial for a Pasco man in 2004 when the Supreme Court ruled that a trial-court judge violated his constitutional rights by barring spectators during part of jury selection.
McCloud, at the time, called it a significant decision on the public’s right to “see how justice is being carried out.”
Ladenburg, 62, served as Pierce County’s prosecutor from 1986 to 2000 and then as the county executive until 2008, both elected positions in the state’s second-largest county, behind King County.
He also has been a private attorney and served as chairman of the Sound Transit board from 2003 to 2007.
In his various roles, he handled criminal and civil matters, including arguing death-penalty cases from both sides, and has dealt with zoning, land-use and environmental issues.
“I have a background that no one can match,” he said, emphasizing that he would bring no agenda to the court and help it avoid “unintended consequences.”
As to his judicial philosophy, he calls himself a “pretty moderate, middle-of-the-road guy” who, unlike the other candidates, is not a legal insider.
Ladenburg said he would like to see the Supreme Court crack down on small courts that make it difficult for the public to get court records.
“I’m the only one who’s called for more openness in the courts,” he said.
As of Sunday, state filings show, Hilyer had raised $190,170 in campaign donations, McCloud $104,997, Sanders $104,707 and Ladenburg $60,805.
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org