Usually a staid affair, the race for Supreme Court between incumbent Richard Sanders and challenger Charlie Wiggins is marked by sharp words and differences between the candidates.

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Usually a staid affair, the race for State Supreme Court between incumbent Richard Sanders and challenger Charlie Wiggins is marked by sharp words and differences between the candidates.

While it’s a nonpartisan race, financial contributions to the two campaigns show a distinct divide between the two camps: Sanders’ backers include the gun lobby, property-rights groups, county GOP chapters and personal-injury defense lawyers.

Wiggins’ financial supporters include an abortion-rights group, victim’s-rights groups and police officers.

Both sides have attracted union support.

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Sanders is a three-term incumbent while Wiggins is a Bainbridge Island attorney in private practice. The race has turned largely into a referendum on Sanders’ record as a lone dissenter on many court opinions, especially in criminal cases.

Wiggins says it’s no secret why Sanders would be the trial lawyers’ favorite. In opinions Sanders has authored, he has sided with defendants and against prosecutors and police about 90 percent of the time, Wiggins said.

For his part, Sanders said Wiggins has scant criminal experience and has misrepresented Sanders’ record.

“I wouldn’t expect him to know much about criminal law, or trying cases to a judge or jury,” Sanders said. “A great limitation is his apparent tendency to favor the government. There has to be a level playing field. The rights of private citizens have to be upheld.”

Sanders also noted that his record on criminal cases is more balanced when also considering cases in which he has joined majority opinions or opted not to hear a case on review, allowing a conviction to stand.

Wiggins countered that to get a sense of how Sanders thinks, the place to look is Sanders’ opinions, not those written by others.

Sanders is so committed to venting his own views, Wiggins says, that he stretches the meaning of common language to reach results he wants. Wiggins offers the example of a case in which Sanders ruled that a defendant who cooked meth in front of a girlfriend’s children had not injured “dependent children,” as the law prohibits, because they were her children, not his.

Sanders stood by that opinion in an interview, saying, “that is what the law says, ‘dependent children.’ I am a strict texturalist.”

Sanders said he prides himself for his outlier role on the court. On his website, he said he stands up for the rights of individuals against the power of the state, and “there are no second-class citizens.”

But that claim hasn’t sat well with Hugh Spitzer, adjunct professor of law at the UW School of Law and an expert on the state constitution, who has endorsed Wiggins for re-election. He noted that Sanders signed an opinion in 2006 upholding a law passed by the Legislature defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

“Richard Sanders often can’t make up his mind as to whether he is a libertarian or a conservative,” Spitzer said.

“I would have thought that in his strong focus on individual rights, that he would have been in support of a right to marriage for same sex couples. … I think he was letting his personal religious or political viewpoint get in the way of the law,” Spitzer said.

Sanders said he had no other option but to side with the Legislature, because he could not uphold a right that the state constitution does not provide. “I am not there to legislate from the bench. I am there to recognize the legal rights that people have, not to make them up.”

Phil Talmadge, a former colleague of Sanders’ on the court now in private practice, has endorsed Sanders. “I don’t think we’d want a Supreme Court of nine Richard Sanders, but it’s healthy to have someone there who will be very careful on actions by government, and that is why I have endorsed him.”

And while Wiggins has made much of an admonishment by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2005 for a visit Sanders made to detainees at a state sex-offender treatment center, Talmadge said the issue was much ado about nothing.

The commission actually found Sanders had violated no aspect of the judge’s code of ethics. Instead, he was cited for the possibility of an appearance of impropriety, which Sanders called a “vague” standard.

Sanders said he visited the facility to satisfy a continuing legal-education requirement and had no inappropriate exchange with inmates, some of whom were to come before his court.

Sanders also dismissed the state Supreme Court’s withdrawal last year of one of his rulings after it found he had a conflict of interest in the case. He says he didn’t, because a case he was personally involved with concerning the same agency turned on another aspect of the law, unrelated to the case before him.

If elected, Wiggins promised to steer clear of improprieties and bring a mind tested by his experience evaluating both sides of a case in matters before him on appeal.

He has spent 33 years in private practice representing clients in a variety of cases in appellate courts. He served as a Court of Appeals judge for less than one year, and is currently a pro tem Superior Court judge in King and Jefferson counties.

“I don’t come to the court as an advocate,” Wiggins said. “I come to the court as an impartial judge.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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