Washington state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders often operates in unusual ways. Sometimes that’s good, like during election years when he freely discusses judicial opinions. (Most justices demur.) Sometimes that’s bad, like when he visited McNeil Island in 2003 and talked with sexually violent predators, some of whom had cases pending in the courts.
Sanders got into ethical trouble for that visit and fought back by filing a lawsuit in 2005 to gain access to state records related to it. The battle continued as Sanders wrote a majority opinion for the Supreme Court that laid out guidelines for determining how much government agencies must pay in fines for blocking or delaying the release of public records.
Before that, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ordered the state to pay Sanders $18,112 in penalties and $55,443 in attorney’s fees in a public records dispute. Both sides appealed, and last month the state Court of Appeals asked the litigants to file briefs in light of the new guidelines.
Problem is, Sanders wrote them.
There would be no conflict if Sanders had recused himself from the case involving Armen Yousoufian and his fight to get public records about two sports stadiums in King County. It was that case that triggered the guidelines for public records penalties.
We have no quarrel with his ruling in the Yousoufian case. In fact, we applauded it. But since he stood to possibly benefit from increased fines, he should’ve taken himself off the case or ended his personal quest for more than $500,000 more in penalties.
Chief Justice Gerry Alexander told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer he wasn’t aware of Sanders’ pending case. He should have been told.
Sanders defends his actions, saying that if he does get more money from the state, he would give it to his attorney. But presumably his attorney would get paid one way or another. Having an extra half-million dollars on hand would surely help.
He also said, “I’m entitled to the benefit of the law just like everybody else in the state.”
But unlike everybody else in the state, Sanders is the one whose opinion shaped the law, so it isn’t the same. He wrote that opinion while he had a case pending on this very issue. He should have allowed another justice to make the determination.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct wouldn’t tell the P-I whether it was investigating Sanders. It should be. It would appear that a reprimand is in order.