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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New court faces ‘heavier weight’ in election issue

Rebecca Cook Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Three Supreme Court justices were sworn in Monday, joining a court burdened by the knowledge that it will most likely decide the fate of the hotly contested governor’s race in the next few weeks.

Republican Dino Rossi’s legal challenge to the election of Democrat Christine Gregoire is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Friday in Chelan County Superior Court. Whoever loses will inevitably appeal to the state’s high court.

Gregoire lost to Rossi in the first count and in a machine recount, but she won a final hand recount by 129 votes. As Supreme Court justices and legislators were sworn in Monday, the close election continued to dominate the agenda. Senate Republicans tried and failed to delay the election certification; House Republicans plan to make a similar attempt today.

Two Supreme Court justices, Barbara Madsen and Richard Sanders, were re-elected this year and sworn in Monday. Olympia appellate attorney Jim Johnson was sworn in as the court’s newest member.

“It feels like there is a heavier weight on my shoulders coming into it,” said Madsen, comparing this ceremony to the starts of her previous two six-year terms. “There are very, very difficult decisions coming up.”

Johnson noted that he has argued several election law cases in the past, but nothing the magnitude of the Washington governor’s race.

“That will be a really big deal,” Johnson said. “Looks like fun, doesn’t it?”

In his speech after being sworn in, Sanders jokingly referred to allegations that a handful of ballots were cast in dead people’s names in the governor’s election. He noted that Madsen had won re-election by 61 percent, “considerably greater than the margin of error of ‘Dead People For Madsen.’ ” He got a huge laugh.

Rossi’s main argument in his election challenge is that the number of votes cast illegally greatly outnumbers the 129-vote margin of victory, and thus the election should be thrown out. He is pushing for a revote. Democrats say the case is weak, and that state law does not allow the courts to blithely throw out election results.

The Supreme Court has already ruled on two cases related to the governor’s election: once against the Democrats and once against the Republicans, both unanimously.

In December, the court rejected the Democratic Party’s bid to force counties to include thousands of previously rejected ballots in the hand recount, and in a separate case rejected the GOP’s attempt to stop King County from counting several hundred ballots that had mistakenly been set aside.

Court-watchers looking for some hint of partisan leaning among the judges were disappointed, as the unanimous decisions gave nothing away.

The decisions were made without Sanders, a libertarian and frequent dissenter on the court, who was out of town. The other unknown in the equation will be Johnson, whose campaign was backed by conservatives but who split publicly with the Republican Party over the open primary issue (he supported it, the party didn’t).

Johnson was introduced on Monday by former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican who has actively supported Rossi’s campaign for a revote. Johnson said he was unaware of Gorton’s involvement with Rossi. Johnson worked for Gorton, a three-term attorney general, for 10 years.

Johnson takes the spot of Justice Faith Ireland, who retired after one term on the bench. She said she expects the third governor’s election case to be more contentious than the first two.

“There are strong opinions, and this will be difficult,” Ireland said. “I expect more fireworks.”

A powerlifter, Ireland plans to compete in a women’s national championship in February and take a six-week ski vacation with her husband this spring.

Retired Justice Charles Z. Smith, also attending Monday’s ceremony, smiled broadly as he declared, “I have absolutely no opinion” on the governor’s election.

But he predicted that the court’s decision, whatever it is, will be nonpartisan.

“The court will be fair,” Smith said. “There will be no political considerations by the judges.”

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