Reform Washington’s Judicial Appointment Process

January 2, 2008

debra-stevens.jpgJudge Debra Stephens, Washington’s Newest Supreme Court Justice already has a website for her election this fall

While I know little about the newest Washington State Supreme Court Justice, Debra Stephens, I do take issue with the process by which she was appointed to the state’s highest court. Little is known about her except that the people quoted in the print media uniformly praise her scholarship and ability. The qualities are certainly essential for any appointment, but there was a certain amount of disinformation circulated from the governor’s office. We were told that she had argued before the State Supreme Court over one hundred times, but a Westlaw search shows only 56 appearances, never on behalf of a litigant but always (except once) filing a brief as a “friend of the court” on behalf of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association (again, except once). As a “friend of the court” filing an amicus brief, more often than not in the normal course of events she would either not have argued at all or argued only a few minutes as the litigants (the parties directly involved in the case) have a relatively short period of time to present their cases.

She was praised for the diversity of views she encountered as an appellate judge , but she had only just been appointed there and had not participated in one opinion (again according to Westlaw). The governor’s office took some license in promoting her qualifications, which of course does not reflect on her but calls attention to problems with the process.

Justice Bobbi Bridge retired in the time-honored fashion by departing the bench a year before the election, so that the governor could appoint her successor, who could then run as the incumbent in the 2008 election. The strong tendency to reelect an incumbent justice gives the appointing governor great influence on make-up of the supreme court bench. This has made one of the State’s most vital and sensitive offices the subject of political patronage and in the past has diminished the stature and potential of the Court.

Washington needs to seriously examine this appointment process and consider alternatives adopted by other states, such as Arizona. That state has a blue ribbon panel which creates a short list of qualified candidates from which the governor must select her appointee.