February 6, 2010 in City

Appeals court system challenged

Method of electing judges called unconstitutional
By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – The Washington Supreme Court will likely be asked to decide whether the state appeals court system is unconstitutional.

Spokane attorney Steve Eugster said Friday it is, because of the way its judges are elected. The population of different districts is so uneven it violates the standard of one person, one vote, he said.

James Pharris, a senior assistant state attorney general, said it isn’t and the standard Eugster cites applies more to legislators and the executive branch of government.

“Nobody’s excluded,” Pharris told Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks in arguing that Eugster’s lawsuit be dismissed.

The state is divided into three appeals court divisions, and those divisions are split into districts. The number of voters in a district can vary by a couple hundred thousand, Eugster said.

But the districts are also set up so that counties aren’t split, and the number of judges varies depending on the workload, Pharris said. The system is rational, and was established by the Legislature, which has the power to make those decisions.

Hicks agreed with Pharris that “one person, one vote” comes from cases that have more to do with the other branches of government, and that judges don’t represent a particular constituency: “They’re to represent everybody. They’re to represent the law.”

Differences between the state and federal constitutions may come into play, Hicks said. And there may be some issues that have never been argued and decided, just as Eugster contends. As a local trial judge, he can’t draw those distinctions, only the state Supreme Court can, he said.

“The quickest way (to get an answer) is to get it up there,” Hicks said. He dismissed Eugster’s lawsuit, giving the former Spokane city councilman the chance to appeal it directly to the state Supreme Court.

Eugster is no stranger to the state’s highest court. Last June, the Supreme Court reversed a state bar association ruling that disbarred Eugster, instead giving him a suspension. He’s also named the court in a recent case challenging the state’s system for disciplining lawyers. He said after the hearing in Hicks’ court he’d waive any potential conflicts with the court taking up this case, though.

“Mr. Eugster, you never bring anything dull to this court,” Hicks said.


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