At a time of national reckoning over injustices against Black Americans, the judges of Spokane County Superior Court issued a joint statement Friday acknowledging “shortcomings” in the local justice system and pledging to “do better” in their efforts to provide equal treatment under the law.
It is unusual for judges to wade into public discourse that might be perceived as political. In the statement, the Superior Court said its judges felt compelled to say something on the matter of racial injustice, even though their code of conduct “requires that we avoid comment in order to maintain the neutrality demanded of us and to avoid the appearance of endorsing a position on an issue that might come before us.”
“In the face of recent reminders of the persistent devaluation and degradation of Black lives in America, we believe in the importance of not maintaining our silence in this instance,” the statement reads.
The statement was posted on the court’s website Friday afternoon, with the title “Personal and Professional Commitment to Equality.” It doesn’t bear the signature of any judge; rather, it’s attributed to the court as an institution.
“There can be no debate that the constitutions we are sworn to uphold are intended to make all of us equal in the eyes of the law,” the court said. “It is with painful awareness that we acknowledge shortcomings that have resulted in systemic racial injustice against Black Americans and Black citizens of our state and county. It is with candid honesty that we recognize the role that the courts have played in these injustices.
“We must be better about recognizing shortcomings in ourselves, in our systems and in our leaders. It is only then that we can roll up our collective sleeves and begin the hard work of instituting and institutionalizing real change.”
Local judges and other officials have for years sought to implement reforms that could eliminate racial disparities in the local justice system, including the overcrowded county jail, which holds disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown people. But progress has been slow.
The court did not propose specific solutions in its statement.
“We do not claim to possess immediate answers to longstanding questions,” the court said. “We do, however, pledge to listen better, do better and be better, when and where we can, to eradicate racism and establish systemic reforms in our justice system.”
The Superior Court handles felony cases and civil litigation, while Spokane County District Court and Spokane Municipal Court primarily handle misdemeanor offenses.
The Superior Court judges are Annette Plese, Charnelle Bjelkengren, Raymond Clary, Julie McKay, Michael Price, Tony Hazel, Maryann Moreno, Harold Clarke, John Cooney, Michelle Szambelan, Timothy Fennessy and Rachelle Anderson.
Bjelkengren was appointed to the bench last year by Gov. Jay Inslee, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a state judge in Eastern Washington.
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