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Wed., July 28, 2010

Editorial: Sanders’ zeal for justice outshines his vexing ways

Let’s state up front that Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders is exasperating, which is why the race for Position 6 on the Washington state Supreme Court is so interesting.

If he were vying for an ethics position, he would be a questionable candidate. He was officially admonished in 2005 for touring the McNeil Island facility for sexual predators when some of the inmates had open cases. He failed to disclose his personal interest in a public records case, which caused the Supreme Court to withdraw an important ruling. Long ago, he showed up at an anti-abortion rally.

If he were vying for a diplomat’s position, he would be a questionable candidate. At a black-tie dinner hosted by the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C., he made a scene by yelling “tyrant” at then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

If his libertarian viewpoint represented the majority opinion of the court, we would balk at an endorsement. But his views are iconoclastic, and his contributions are unique. His passionate dissents force the other justices to dig deeper as they research and write their rulings. He makes sure that the state Constitution is represented. He zealously defends individual rights.

Though he is often in the minority – and sometimes alone – he helps strengthen the rulings that will ultimately affect society. He bucks conservatives on tough-on-crime cases. He frustrates liberals when it comes to regulations. He should delight anyone who wants open government.

He is labeled as “pro-crime” by some, but that misses the point. He is guarding individual rights, which are quite expansive under the state Constitution. He is labeled “pro-business” by others, but what he’s really doing is guarding property rights.

We don’t always agree with him, but we know he is taking a principled stand.

He has two opponents, Charles Wiggins, a former Court of Appeals judge, and Bryan Chuschcoff, a Pierce County Superior Court judge. Both point to Sanders’ tendency to side with criminal defendants. Both point to his lapses outside the court. But neither would add an important dynamic to the nine-person panel. They would most likely echo the views that already enjoy the support of the majority of the court. Neither is likely to drift from the mainstream.

Even in dissent, it is important for the court to have a voice that reflects a different way of thinking. This serves to sharpen the opinions that will rule the day. No doubt, Sanders is exasperating, but he is also smart, articulate and performs an important role. The court would be weaker without him.

For this reason, he has earned another term on the bench.

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