Gov. Chris Gregoire has named King County Superior Court Judge Steven González to the state Supreme Court, replacing retiring Justice Gerry Alexander.

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As a teen, Steven González earned money cleaning park bathrooms in the California town where he grew up.

On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed González to serve as one of nine justices on the Washington State Supreme Court.

González, a King County Superior Court judge, will replace Justice Gerry Alexander, who is retiring at the end of the year.

González touched on his modest upbringing in his remarks at the Temple of Justice in Olympia, where a room full of current justices and others in the audience exploded in applause at Gregoire’s announcement.

He also spoke of the future, saying he wanted to renew a belief that the “rule of law matters.”

Gregoire called González “exceptionally well qualified” for the job, citing his experience as a judge, prosecutor and private attorney. She singled out his role in successfully prosecuting a high-profile terrorism case.

Listing other attributes, Gregoire described González as a “very good listener” with a record of displaying a “thorough understanding of the issues” before him on the bench.

González also appreciates that people expect to be treated fairly and impartially by the courts, Gregoire said.

“It’s critical that we believe the outcomes from courts will be fair for everyone,” González said after the appointment.

He expressed a concern that a lack of teaching about civics in schools, coupled with the politicization of the courts, has affected the faith people have in the justice system.

González said he will continue his practice of speaking to middle- and high-school students about civics and how the courts fit into the three branches of government.

González, 48, was appointed to the Superior Court bench by former Gov. Gary Locke in March 2002. He won a contested election the same year, then was re-elected in 2004 and 2008.

Now a criminal department judge, González also has served in the civil and family-law departments.

His appointment to the state’s high court won widespread praise, drawing comments about his intellect, character and ethical conduct.

“Beyond Steve’s impressive intellect and public-spiritedness, it is his demeanor that marks him for greatness on the Supreme Court,” fellow Superior Court Judge William Downing said in a statement. “The calm thoughtfulness he always projects will garner the respect of litigants and influence with his new colleagues.”

Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the Seattle-based social-justice organization OneAmerica, said in a statement, “I have known Judge González for many years and am deeply impressed by his demeanor, moral character and deep commitment to public service.”

She said González has shown a compassion for “our most vulnerable communities” and understands the complexity of immigration issues.

González, who is married to Michelle González, assistant dean of the University of Washington law school, and is father of two children, will be only the second justice of Hispanic heritage to serve on the state’s high court, said court spokeswoman Wendy Ferrell.

Charles Z. Smith, of African-American and Cuban descent, was the state’s first ethnic minority on the court. He was appointed in 1988 and served until 2002, when he stepped down after reaching the state’s mandatory retirement age of 75.

Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro De La Raza, a Seattle Latino group, said that González’s life experience is “valuable in the court, and for our community in general.”

“It gives our community a lot of hope,” she said. “Our young kids who are coming up who can see a role model like Steve González.”

González, before his appointment to the bench, served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle from 1997 to 2002, handling cases in the Western District of Washington. He was part of a prosecution team that won a terrorism conviction in 2001 against Algerian Ahmed Ressam in a millennium bomb plot first detected in Port Angeles.

Andrew Hamilton, a King County deputy prosecutor and former federal attorney who worked with González on the case, said Tuesday that González volunteered to take on one of the most arduous tasks — collecting evidence from foreign governments using carefully constructed information.

As a result, Hamilton said, “Steve had a total command of the facts of this case, better than anybody else.”

Previously, González served as a domestic-violence prosecutor for the city of Seattle and worked as an associate in the business law department at the Seattle law firm Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson.

He earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in East Asian Studies from Pitzer College in his hometown of Claremont, Calif., and his law degree from the University of California School of Law in Berkeley, known as Boalt Hall, where he was the technical editor of La Raza Law Journal.

González, a self-described “curious person” who speaks Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Spanish, said during Tuesday’s interview that he began thinking about a legal career while in college, although others had joked earlier about the possibility because of his penchant for debating just about any relevant subject.

He said he never imagined then that he would someday become a state-court justice, noting his grandmother on his father’s side, after losing her job, cleaned the dorms he lived in at Pitzer.

His mother’s family entered the United States through Ellis Island about 100 years ago from Eastern Europe; his father’s family came to California from Mexico during the revolution in that country of the early 1900s.

His mother, who worked as nurse’s aide and a social worker, and his father, a carpenter, divorced when he was 12, said González, who has an older brother and a younger sister.

González said it was his mother who taught him about “justice and hard work.”

Working in the restrooms also drove him toward college, he said at Tuesday’s ceremony, although he mistakenly tried to apply to a women’s college adjoining Pitzer.

González, who chairs the Washington State Access to Justice Board and co-chairs the Race and Criminal Justice System Task Force, will begin serving as a justice in January, earning $164,230 a year. He will face election to a six-year term next fall.

Alexander, who was elected to the court in 1994 and served nine years as chief justice, is retiring at the end of the year under the mandatory-age provision.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302