The timing of judicial elections has been unkind to Washington state Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens.
The Spokane native’s first race came in 2008, just as her daughter, Lindsey, prepared to graduate from Mt. Spokane High School. Six years later, she’s facing the same challenge with her son, Robert, who’s graduating from Capital High School in Olympia.
She’s also juggling campaign duties and oral arguments with her 25-year wedding anniversary to her husband, Craig.
“We went out to dinner, you know,” Stephens said Tuesday, laughing. “Maybe down the road we’ll celebrate in a bigger way.”
Stephens stopped in Spokane on Tuesday to kick off what will be her first re-election effort. The first Eastern Washington woman to serve in the state’s highest court and also its youngest member, Stephens, 48, was appointed to her position by former Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2007 and ran unopposed for her seat the following year.
So far, no challengers have filed against the Gonzaga University Law School and West Valley High School alumna.
“That’s not generally what occurs,” Stephens said. She added, “In the modern era, most Supreme Court races have been contested.”
Pegged as a “collegial” moderate by Gregoire upon her appointment, Stephens penned the lengthy decision in McCleary v. State of Washington in January 2012. Writing for the majority, Stephens held the Washington Legislature was not upholding its “paramount duty” guaranteed in the state Constitution to fund basic education.
“The State has failed to meet its duty … by consistently providing school districts with a level of resources that falls short of the actual costs of the basic education program,” Stephens wrote in the 2012 opinion that stretched to 79 pages.
The opinion, Stephens said, was “a tremendous undertaking,” fueled in large part by the efforts of attorneys and trial court judges.
“In some ways, the McCleary decision is a historical document,” she said. “It collects in one place a lot of information that was just in legislative reports, a couple from prior decisions. It was scattered all around.”
Several members of the Legislature, including Spokane Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, have criticized the court’s role in the matter, saying judges are trampling on their feet.
Stephens said the language of the state constitution invites judicial review, and the Washington court’s involvement mirrors that of other states dealing with mandates in their state constitutions requiring a certain level of education funding.
“In difficult cases like this, courts have nowhere to hide,” Stephens said. “People come to court to vindicate their rights. In this, the people brought a claim alleging a violation of their constitutional rights, and it’s our obligation to say what the constitution requires.”
Stephens said the current justices of the court comprise “a really healthy tenor.” After days filled with oral arguments and deliberations, the nine-member panel will often sit down to eat a dish brought in by one of the justices in a tradition Stephens said started with current Chief Justice Barbara Madsen.
“We’re kind of locked up together for hours and hours and hours,” Stephens said. “I think breaking bread together is a great way to build consensus, to build community. We can fight tooth and tongue over a case, and then say, ‘Great chili, Susan.’ ”
In addition to her duties in court, Stephens continued to teach a class on state constitutional law at Gonzaga University through 2010. She has also been active in establishing an electronic filing database for state appellate courts set to launch soon, and is a member of the Washington state Access to Justice Board, which works to increase access to the legal system for low-income clients.
“About half of what I do is decide cases,” Stephens said.
The Spokane-based law firm of Eymann Allison Hunter Jones, P.S., hosted Stephens’ appearance at the Patsy Clark mansion in the Browne’s Addition neighborhood on Tuesday evening.
Four seats on the nine-member panel will be up for grabs in November. Three justices, including Stephens, are up for re-election, while longtime conservative member of the court James Johnson announced his retirement in March due to health issues.
Stephens says she’s serving without too much of an eye to the future.
“I’ve learned a lot in these seven years,” she said. “It has slowed me down in just the right way, to really see how complicated some problems are, and yet how simple they are at the same time.”