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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Supreme Court candidates Nathan Choi, Steve Gonzalez debate Kavanaugh, campaign finance

Washington Supreme Court  candidates  Nathan Choi, left and Justic Steve Gonzalez, right, debate at the Spokane Club on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

In their first public forum in the race for a seat on the Washington Supreme Court – a forum that at times delved into the sexual assault allegations against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh – Justice Steven Gonzalez and his challenger, Nathan Choi, answered a series of questions from Spokane voters, including how justices can address prison overcrowding and whether judges at all levels should be elected.

“Rather than put this honorable gentleman through this horrendous mess, I think it should go to the people,” Choi said of Kavanaugh, after a question mentioned the turmoil surrounding President Donald Trump’s latest appointee. “We should elect who our judges are going to be.”

Gonzalez, meanwhile, stayed clear of offering his opinion on politics, even when asked which sitting Supreme Court justice he admired most and why.

“I only met Justice Sonia Sotomayor,” he said. “I found her very personable and engaging. I was so impressed.”

The forum, hosted by Spokane Rotary Club 21 and held in the banquet room of the Spokane Club in downtown Spokane, drew a few dozen Rotary Club members and several members of the area’s legal and judicial community, including Spokane Municipal Court Judge Tracy Staab and Superior Court Judge Michelle Szambelan.

The candidates took turns responding to a list of 10 prescreened questions asked by club members, ensuring that candidates did not delve into their opinions on previous cases or expound on political views, since the race is nonpartisan.

The first, asked by former KHQ News anchor Julie Humphreys, now a communications manager at Second Harvest, sought their opinion on judge elections in general, given the Kavanaugh controversy that captured the nation’s attention Thursday.

“I think it’s important we all inform ourselves and cast an informed vote,” Gonzalez said. “That’s partly why we’re here. There are problems with each system, but in this state I don’t think we’re going to give up that right.”

Taking that to be a nonanswer, Choi countered and asked, “Was that a yes or no?” before going into his opinion on Kavanaugh. Later in the debate, he would again mention the U.S. Supreme Court when he told the crowd he admired George H.W. Bush’s appointee, Justice Clarence Thomas.

“He was tormented like (Judge) Kavanaugh is now,” he said. “I think he’s gone through a lot of adversity and he has done a lot. People expect the fact that he’s this ethnicity, or this skin color, he would vote this way or that way, but he’s above that. I think people should be above that.”

Choi, who in February was sued by the state Attorney General’s Office for failing to follow Public Disclosure Commission laws while running for an appeals court seat last year, was also reprimanded by the King County Bar Association for failing to file Public Disclosure forms in the same race. He told The Spokesman-Review earlier this month that he was just getting started on campaigning and raising money.

The immigration lawyer from Hawaii, who now lives in Bellevue, was accused of taking out a full-page ad in the Seattle Times with the headline “Vote for Judge Nathan Choi,” which the bar association ruled could lead voters to believe he was already a sitting judge. Choi told a Spokesman-Review reporter the bar association was simply backing his opponent, who was a former board member.

Gonzalez has served on the Supreme Court for a full six-year term after being elected in 2012 and has completed multiple terms on the King County Superior Court.

Of his challenger’s contentious history with elections, Gonzalez lobbed further criticism during the Spokane debate, saying Choi put up a fake website that he “doesn’t admit.”

The final question, which received the longest response from Choi, had the candidates detail their campaign structure and contributions.

“I’d like to address the issue of not complying with the PDC,” Choi said. “I have complied and I paid the fine. I believe prior President Obama and Hillary Clinton, they’ve all paid a fine for not doing something at a certain time.”

As for campaign expenditures, he welcomed critics to check his filings, though he said it was “clear I don’t request donations,” since he estimated he’s only raised and spent about $1,500 on the campaign, all of which he said is his money. A check of his PDC filings Thursday afternoon showed there were no reports available.

Gonzalez, however, was skeptical.

“I follow the rules of the Public Disclosure Commission, those reports are all public,” he said. “Since my opponent doesn’t and was sued by the attorney general and has defaulted, you will have to take his word for it.”