With Shea under investigation, a look back at the only Washington House member ever expelled
Sun., Sept. 1, 2019
As critics and supporters of Rep. Matt Shea await the findings of an independent investigation of the Spokane Valley Republican, they should know one thing: When voters send a person to Olympia, it’s extremely rare that legislators permanently send them home.
In the 130 years of statehood, only one member of the House of Representatives has been expelled by his colleagues through a process that requires at least two-thirds of the body to agree he’s done something worth being kicked out for.
But that 1933 case, involving freshman Rep. Nelson Robinson, is so unusual it doesn’t serve as a guide for the possible outcome of the investigation of Shea, who is being scrutinized by an independent firm for possible involvement with groups or individuals who promote or plan political violence.
Robinson’s case – which involved disputed allegations of statutory rape that convinced a jury but not a governor – probably doesn’t serve as a guide for much of anything.
Robinson was a 29-year-old amateur tennis player from North Seattle when he ran for a House seat in the 1932 election. According to news reports of his later trial, he was campaigning one October afternoon in Woodland Park when he met Marjorie Rowley. Robinson would later say he gave her a piece of campaign literature and they struck up a conversation, during which she offered to hand out literature for him. He was out of literature, so they drove first to his home to get more, then drove around Seattle.
Rowley told Robinson she was an 18-year-old chorus girl. She later told police she was 12, and just visiting an aunt and uncle from out of town. When Robinson arrived at their home to drop her off, her uncle was waiting with police – and a gun.
Rowley said Robinson “forced his intentions on her.” Robinson said their behavior was “perfectly proper,” but when Officer Otto Selfritz told him the uncle was threatening to kill him unless he confessed and offered to marry the girl, Robinson did. Selfritz then walked Robinson to the station, and on the way the candidate said the officer told him he should confess “so the whole thing could be quieted down because we thought it might cost the party thousands of votes.” He wrote a confession at the police station, which he later recanted.
He was charged with “carnally knowing and abusing a female child under the age of 15 years, not his wife.” He remained in jail through the November election, which he won, possibly helped by the Franklin Roosevelt landslide and ballots that allowed voters to cast a straight Democratic or Republican ticket by flipping a single lever.
Robinson did, however, receive 100 more votes than the other Democrat elected to the House in that district.
As a result of that election, the state House of Representatives would go from 89 Republicans and eight Democrats to 70 Democrats and 29 Republicans for the new session in 1933. The number of representatives had been enlarged from 97 to 99 that year.
The representative-elect’s trial was in mid-December, and received fairly concise, inside coverage in the Seattle Times, but detailed, front-page coverage in the morning Post-Intelligencer.
The P-I said the courtroom was filled with politicians and tennis fans. It described Rowley as “looking very childish in a red dress with white beret,” who had to get questions from the prosecuting attorney in one- or two-syllable words to understand them but was “apparently oblivious to the stares of the crowd which packed the courtroom.”
She testified Robinson attacked her, but on cross examination admitted she signed an affidavit that their relations had “never been unbecoming.” She told the prosecutor she didn’t understand the words in the affidavit and only signed it because Robinson’s mother asked her to.
Prosecutors entered Robinson’s confession and had two people testify that he confessed to them when they visited him in jail. Robinson said he only told them about what he had confessed to police, but not what he’d actually done.
The defense produced two doctors who examined Rowley and said Robinson had not “harmed” her. That conflicted with a report for the prosecution from the doctor at the juvenile detention home who examined Rowley a week after Robinson’s arrest and said he had.
Robinson’s attorney asked the jury of five women and seven men not to judge the defendant as a man of 29 but as someone with traits and character no more than a boy in his early teens, and claimed Rowley’s story was “a product of a too fanciful imagination.”
The jury deliberated for nearly a day and came back with an unusual verdict: They found Robinson guilty, but said they didn’t believe Rowley was really 12. They asked he be sentenced as if she was at least 15, which would allow for a more lenient prison term.
On Jan. 7, the judge took that into consideration and sentenced Robinson to one to five years at the state reformatory. An hour later, Republican Gov. Roland Hartley pardoned him after receiving sworn statements from Rowley’s mother and her doctor that the assault had not occurred.
Robinson was sworn in with the other legislators the next day. The Great Depression was in full force and an army of unemployed men, women and children were marching on the state capital to demand some relief from hunger, homelessness and poverty. But the House wasn’t through with Robinson.
Although his new colleagues could have tried to block Robinson from being seated in the House, no one formally objected to him taking the oath of office. But the other 23 King County legislators met later that evening and began pushing for expulsion proceedings. The P-I said he reportedly offered to resign if his mother, a longtime Democratic operative, or his twin brother could be appointed in his place and receive the $300 in monthly wages. A special investigating committee was appointed, with one of Robinson’s chief critics from a neighboring Seattle district as chairman.
The House Journal says they had statements from Rowley’s mother, one of the doctors who testified for the defense, Robinson himself and his attorney. Although Hartley pardoned him, a jury had convicted him, the special committee said in its report, and that conviction involves “moral turpitude.”
“There are not sufficient extenuating circumstance to invoke the clemency of this body,” the committee said, recommending Robinson be expelled. Later that day the sergeant at arms rounded up all members on a call of the House and locked the doors of the chamber so they couldn’t leave until they voted.
Robinson, who was present but not allowed to vote on his ouster, was expelled on a vote of 93-5 – far higher than the constitutional requirement of two-thirds – although one Spokane representative who voted “no” warned legislators of the biblical admonition to “judge not lest you be judged.”
King County commissioners would later select Edmund Miller, another Seattle Democrat, to take his place. It’s Miller’s photo in the official House “class photo” of 1933.
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