OLYMPIA – Washington state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders is no stranger to controversy, and his bid to seek a fourth term has led to an unusually spirited campaign that may extend beyond the primary.
Sanders has drawn two opponents, former Court of Appeals Judge Charlie Wiggins and Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff.
It’s not the only Supreme Court race on the Aug. 17 primary ballot, but it’s the only high court race where there’s a good chance that no one candidate will draw more than 50 percent and win the race in the primary.
Also up for re-election are Justice Jim Johnson and Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. Madsen is running unopposed in the primary, so she will advance alone to the November ballot. Johnson faces Tacoma attorney Stan Rumbaugh, and the winner of that matchup also will advance unopposed.
Independent pollster and political scientist Stuart Elway says that with an expected low primary turnout and the relatively low-profile nature of court races, challengers have an uphill battle.
However, Wiggins has raised a competitive amount of money and endorsements from a variety of groups. Chushcoff hasn’t raised any money and says he doesn’t plan to, but his presence could result in neither Sanders nor Wiggins getting more than 50 percent of the vote.
“The conventional wisdom is, if someone has the resources to mount a campaign, that could be pretty effective because they’re such low visibility races,” Elway said. “It’s a real targeted campaign.”
First elected to the Supreme Court in 1995, Sanders is known for his sometimes passionate dissenting opinions, and in past years he has drawn fire for controversial actions on and off the bench. Wiggins has wasted little time in attacking Sanders on those fronts. Sanders was given an admonishment by the state Judicial Conduct Commission in 2005 for touring Washington’s sex predator commitment center at McNeil Island while residents had appeals pending.
In 2008, Sanders stood up and yelled “tyrant” at then-U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey at a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C., for the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
Sanders later released a statement saying he was speaking his conscience, and he cited inadequate access to the legal system for detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the importance of the Geneva Conventions.
Sanders calls Wiggins’ criticism of his personal behavior “a campaign of character assassination.”
“I wanted to go into this election talking about legal issues, talking about my record,” he said.
On that point, Chushcoff and Wiggins cite concerns about Sanders’ judicial philosophy.
Wiggins notes that in cases where the Supreme Court is divided, Sanders votes in favor of the defendant 94 percent of the time.
“By protecting the rights of the accused to this extent, he’s really failing to protect the rights of the public,” Wiggins said.
Sanders takes issue with Wiggins’ figures, noting that they exclude unanimous cases and petitions for review. That said, Sanders is unapologetic for “preserving and protecting our individual rights.”
“If I’m going to stick up for the rights of some criminal, you know I’m going to stick up for the rights of other people,” Sanders said.
Wiggins has raised about $120,000 and secured the endorsements of many prosecuting attorneys, the state Democratic Party, and the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs.
Sanders, a self-described libertarian, has raised nearly $150,000 and has the support of the powerful Building Industry Association of Washington, the state Republican and Libertarian parties, and business groups.
In the other contested race, Johnson, who is seeking his second term, has raised about $82,000. He’s fighting off challenger Rumbaugh, who has raised nearly $49,000 and secured endorsements from liberal advocacy groups such as Seattle-based Fuse.