SEATTLE – When Washington Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers announced in January that he wouldn’t seek re-election, he told a newspaper he was looking forward to traveling. Seeing the Kentucky Derby, New Orleans and Cuba were on his list, as well as maybe working with his wife’s foundation.
But he had a year left on his term, and a serious health matter to deal with first.
Another bout of cancer – this time in his mouth, a consequence of enjoying a nightly cigar for 20 years – required doctors to remove half his tongue in February and replace some of it with tissue from his leg. He missed two days of oral arguments before the high court, something his previous three cancer surgeries never required.
He had a trachea hole in his throat when he returned to the bench, and sent instant messages to his colleagues when he had questions for lawyers arguing cases.
By May, however, doctors found another tumor. He spent six weeks undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, and attended oral arguments throughout June from his home in Issaquah. He donned his black robe as he appeared in the courtroom via Skype.
Chambers says he’s now on the mend. As four candidates vie to replace him on the court, he recently landed in Hawaii, where he’s spending 10 days biking, swimming and walking to rebuild his strength. He has been undergoing therapy to help him speak and swallow again; he said his speech is improving but will likely always remain impaired.
“I think the real story here is how my colleagues rallied around me and accommodated my wish to continue to work,” Chambers wrote in an email from Maui. “I fully participated just as if I were there in person.”
Chambers, 68, has served on the court since 2000. He’s quick to note that his decision to retire had nothing to do with his health. When he was re-elected in 2006, he insisted that his next term would be his last.
He’s not the only justice fighting cancer. Justice Mary Fairhurst was treated last fall for a colon tumor that had spread to her lung. She is doing well and her prognosis is good, said court spokeswoman Wendy Ferrell.
Chambers’ illness has received little attention beyond his colleagues, though he wrote about it on his blog in two posts last spring.
“I don’t think a lot of people knew I had cancer,” he wrote in late March. “It is not that it was a secret or that I didn’t want anyone to know. I am a public figure and I have never tried to keep my health a secret. On the other hand, I saw no reason to publicize what seems a private matter to me.”
He added: “I prefer to deal with adversity in private. I slip into my cave and focus solely on what I must do to overcome the challenge before me. Well-wishers, sympathy cards, and similar commotion are just distractions from the tasks on which I must focus.”
Chambers spent three decades in private practice before joining the court. He was a successful trial lawyer who sued over product and highway safety issues, and he helped win money for nursing home residents who sought to return to their own homes. He also served as president of the state bar association.
By the time he was elected to the Supreme Court, he was making more than $1 million a year. Being a justice was a 90 percent pay cut, and he said it’s worth every penny.
“On the court, I was able to make a difference to more people,” he wrote in his email.
He points to one of his most important opinions, in Braam v. State, when he wrote for a unanimous court that children in Washington’s foster care system have a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risks of harm. He was moved, he said, by the story of one of the plaintiffs, a girl who graduated from high school with a 3.5 grade-point average despite having been moved 22 times in seven years.
The ruling – the first such holding by a state supreme court in the U.S. – prompted a settlement in which Washington agreed to fix its foster care system.
Another important opinion came in 2010, in the case of a Grant County boy convicted at age 12 of sexually molesting a young neighbor. The Supreme Court ruled that he should be given a new trial because his vastly overworked public defender failed to investigate his case and urged him to plead guilty. The boy was eventually exonerated.
It was the first time the high court had ruled that the bar association’s caseload guidelines could be considered in determining whether a defendant’s lawyer was adequate, and it helped pave the way for the court to adopt new standards for public defenders which take effect next year, said Seattle University Law School professor Bob Boruchowitz, a proponent of the standards.
“If that had been the only thing he did in his terms on the court, it would be worth it,” Boruchowitz said. “It recognized in a way for the first time how serious the deficiencies in public defense are in parts of the state.”
Michael Reitz, who follows the court for the free-enterprise think tank Freedom Foundation, credited Chambers for being the only state justice with a blog, which gives some insight into what it’s like to be a judge.
Chambers said the people seeking his seat – former Justice Richard Sanders, King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Hilyer, former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, and appellate lawyer Sheryl Gordon McCloud – are all strong candidates. He has endorsed Sanders, his often contrarian former colleague, because Sanders often has a different perspective on legal questions, and that often improves the court’s decisions, Chambers said.
Regardless, “The state is going to have a great justice to replace me,” he said.