Supreme Court elections in Washington are sometimes heated races that prompt outside groups to spend money for or against sitting justices and sometimes relatively tame affairs in which incumbents face little or no serious opposition.
Although 2016 was the former, 2018 is shaping up to be the latter. Challengers to Justices Susan Owens and Sheryl Gordon McCloud were bounced from the ballot this summer for not meeting basic requirements, giving the incumbents a straight shot at re-election.
Nathan Choi, the challenger to Justice Steve Gonzalez, said this week he hasn’t raised any money yet and is just getting started with a statewide campaign that ends in less than two months.
Gonzalez, running in his first re-election campaign, enjoys all the advantages in funding, name recognition, endorsements and a string of ratings from groups saying he’s “exceptionally well qualified” to keep the job. He has a resume that includes stints at the U.S. attorney’s office, the Seattle city attorney’s office, a private law firm and a decade as a King County Superior Court judge.
He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2011 by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire and was elected to it the next year.
In some ways, this campaign is very similar to 2012, Gonzalez said. He picked up bipartisan support both years and has raised money for a statewide campaign. He never met his 2012 opponent, Bruce Danielson, who didn’t attend any forums or joint interviews. As of Tuesday, he hadn’t met Choi, although they are both scheduled for a joint appearance before the Spokane Rotary Club next week.
“It looks like he’s going to start campaigning,” Gonzalez said.
Choi said he’s been busy with his law practice but is shifting into a campaign mode.
He received his law degree from the University of Hawaii and practiced in that state for 10 years. He now has his own practice in Bellevue, where he specializes in immigration law. He ran unsuccessfully for an appeals court seat last year, and was sued in February by the state Attorney General’s Office for failing to follow the Public Disclosure Commission laws for reporting contributions and expenses from that campaign.
Choi did not respond to the lawsuit, and in May, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy granted an order of default against him, with more hearings to follow.
As of this week, Choi had not filed any contribution or expense reports for this campaign, although he had filed his candidate registration form with the PDC. Contacted about that lack of reporting, Choi said he hadn’t received any money or spent anything beyond his filing fee, although he conceded the $1,867 fee should have been reported.
Choi said there was a problem uploading the reports, and he’s working to straighten it out.
“For some reason, I keep having glitches with that,” he said. “It’s not intentional, little things that have to be resolved. It’s not like I’m colluding with Russians or anything.”
Choi was admonished by the King County Bar Association for failing to file PDC forms in his 2017 race and for taking out a full-page ad in the Seattle Times with the headline “Vote for Judge Nathan Choi,” which it said could lead voters to believe he was already a judge. Choi contended the bar association was simply backing his opponent, who was a former board member.
He again refused to participate in the association’s rating process this year, and the organization rated Gonzalez “exceptionally well qualified.”
One big difference from 2012 is the change in state law covering Supreme Court races. Under the old law, a race with two or more candidates went on the primary ballot. If one candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote – guaranteed when only two were running – the primary winner went on the ballot alone and was thus assured of election. Under the current law, a Supreme Court race only goes on the primary ballot if there are three or more candidates. A two-candidate race goes on the general election ballot.
That’s an advantage, Gonzalez said, because the state distributes a voter’s guide that is mailed to every voter before the election. It gives voters a chance to compare and contrast the candidates, he said.
“In my experience, most voters don’t know anything about judicial candidates,” Gonzalez said. Big cases or controversial decisions might raise the profile of the court, but he doubts they raise the profile of individual justices.