Four Washington Supreme Court justices face expiring terms this year, but voters will get to decide just two races for the state’s highest court.
That’s because half of the incumbents up for reelection this fall — Debra Stephens, the court’s newly minted chief and a two-term justice, and Charles W. Johnson, on the court since 1991 and now its longest-serving justice — didn’t draw opponents. Both will appear uncontested on ballots.
Two other justices up for election this year who drew challengers — Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis and Justice G. Helen Whitener — are the most recent additions to the court, appointed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee to fill vacancies within the past year.
Montoya-Lewis, a former Whatcom County Superior Court judge, was picked in December to replace Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst, who is battling cancer. Whitener, a former Pierce County Superior Court judge, was selected in April to fill the vacancy created by retiring Justice Charlie Wiggins.
Their opponents — Federal Way Municipal Court Judge David Larson and retired Winlock School District Superintendent Richard Serns — each acknowledged challenging a newer justice to increase prospects for winning. Still, the advantage of incumbency on the high court, where justices can parlay political appointments into life terms, looms large.
The incumbent justices’ campaigns have drawn more endorsements and contributions from big name politicians and interest groups. Each challenger, in turn, has sought to cast himself as an impartial outsider not beholden to the state’s political power structure.
The races also pit white male challengers against minority women incumbents during a year when issues of racial inequity have taken center stage.
The nonpartisan positions come with a six-year term and annual pay of $220,320.
Larson vs. Montoya-Lewis
Montoya-Lewis, 52, the first Native American to sit on Washington’s Supreme Court, cites 20 years of varied judicial experience that includes serving as a judge for the Whatcom County Superior Court and for three Washington-based tribes: the Lummi, the Upper Skagit and the Nooksack.
She views racial inequity and access to the courts as the biggest challenges facing the justice system, due in part, she said, to a judiciary that doesn’t reflect the communities it serves.
“It is difficult to claim we’re committed to reforming and understanding inequity when we don’t advocate for judges who have lived it through experience,” she said.
Larson, 62, has served as the presiding judge of the Federal Way Municipal Court since 2008. He’s also a former member and president of the Federal Way School board, and previously worked as a trial lawyer for 23 years.
He sees the biggest need facing Washington courts as reforming access to resources that help defendants deal with mental health, addiction and homelessness problems as a way to prevent reoffending.
“We need to take a therapeutic approach right up front instead of a punitive approach,” Larson said.
Montoya-Lewis holds a sizable advantage in campaign donations, outraising Larson $182,000 to $33,100 as of this week, according to state campaign finance reports.
Her donor base is primarily individuals, but also includes at least 11 tribes, which collectively have given her campaign more than $20,000. Public employee unions, including the Washington Education Association (WEA), the Washington Federation State Employees (WFSE) and the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters (WSCFF), have each given her $2,000.
Most of Larson’s contributions have come from individuals, including businessman and McCaw Cellular founder Bruce McCaw ($1,000), and venture capitalist Rufus Lumry and his wife, Patricia ($4,000). The Washington State Republican Party and the Skagit County GOP have donated $634 and $500 to his campaign respectively.
Larson unsuccessfully ran for the court in 2016, losing to Wiggins despite getting a boost from an independent campaign largely funded by a barrage of cash from local billionaires and their PACs. He said he’s partly running again to highlight a need to reform judicial elections, advocating for them to be publicly financed to eliminate private- and special interest-contributions that raise conflict-of-interest perceptions.
Larson contends he was pressured not to run again this year by an official he declined to name, and says the judicial election system is “wired to protect the status quo.” He also pointed to Montoya-Lewis’ statements in campaign literature in which she describes herself as “a voice … for Native American communities, and other underrepresented communities,” as proof of what he sees as her bias.
“The role of a judge is to apply the law as written in the Constitution,” he said. “You can’t have it where judges impose their own personal opinion or biases to the law.”
Montoya-Lewis doesn’t dispute that she brings diversity to the bench, but describes her Native American heritage as offering perspective that’s been lacking on the court. She maintains that her heritage informs, but doesn’t bias, her decision-making.
In 2002, while working as a judge for her own tribe — the Pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico — she said tribal officials asked whether she would dismiss a lawsuit against the tribe. After she refused to answer the question, the tribe fired her as a judge and disenrolled her as a member, she said.
“It had extraordinary consequences on my life and my family to do what I believed was the right thing to do as a judge, which was not to discuss decisions with a party,” said Montoya-Lewis, who has since been reenrolled as a member of her tribe. “That speaks for my record as an independent jurist.”
Serns vs. Whitener
G. Helen Whitener, 55, the first Black woman to sit on Washington’s Supreme Court, cites more than 21 years of legal experience, including work as a judge for municipal and district courts, Pierce County Superior Court and the Washington State Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. She has also worked as a prosecutor, public defender and private defense attorney.
Whitener said her judicial philosophy is largely shaped by experiencing marginalization as an immigrant from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, a Black woman, a lesbian and someone with a physical disability: she suffers from a back condition that led her to seek medical care in the U.S. as a teenager.
“When it comes to decisions made by this court, my philosophy has always been access, access, access,” she said. “Justice to me is always defined as just treatment for all. The law needs to be interpreted as broadly as possible so that all people fall under it.”
Serns, 69, spent more than 30 years working in Washington schools as a teacher, principal, human resources administrator and superintendent. He graduated from the University of Washington Law School in 1999, but passed the state bar exam only this spring. Serns said he hasn’t practiced law, but drew upon his legal education while writing and developing school district policies, mediating labor and employment issues and during collective bargaining.
Serns said he’s not a critic of Whitener or her qualifications, but rather sees his candidacy as “applying for a job,” giving voters an alternative to what he describes as a groupthink mentality that can pervade a court filled only with justices who emerged through the legal profession.
He cites John Stanford, the retired U.S. Army major general with no background in education who was recruited to head Seattle Public Schools, as a model for how his unconventional candidacy would succeed.
“The skill set for justice is more akin to my background: to listen carefully, research deeply, deliberate and write up findings,” he said. “That’s very comparable to what I do and did throughout my career.”
As of this week, Whitener has raised nearly $70,400 compared to $2,726 for Serns, all of which he self-funded, according to state campaign finance reports. Nearly $14,000 of Whitener’s donations have come from special interest groups, including the home-caregivers labor union SEIU 775, and public employee unions WEA, WFSE and WSCFF.
Whitener said her legal principles have never been compromised by endorsements or campaign money.
“It’s very easy for me, because it’s about the law,” she said. “If the facts are there for you and the law supports you, Justice Whitener will come down in your favor because the laws requires it.”
Serns, who describes himself as a nonpartisan moderate who has never affiliated himself with any political party, said he believes the court’s nonpartisan nature has eroded due to political appointments.
Five of the nine sitting justices were first appointed before having to defend their seats in an election and “then having the advantage of running as the incumbent,” he said.
Serns said his judicial approach would be that of a strict constructionist, following the original language of the Constitution. “I don’t think that justices should try to make new law like a legislator,” he said.