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Spin Control: Can’t leap to conclusions on study of justices’ campaign money

The Temple of Justice, where the state Supreme Court is housed, in Olympia.  (Albert James/The Spokesman-Review / The Spokesman-Review)

Justices elected and re-elected to the Washington Supreme Court over the last 10 years have generally received much more money from liberal or progressive donors. Their most serious challengers generally got their big money from conservative donors.

When the court’s decisions involved a case in which progressive forces tended to align with one side and conservatives with the other, the rulings were far more likely to come down on the side backed by progressives, according to a new report from Ballotpedia, an organization that studies and reports on political trends across the country.

That does not mean, however, that one can conclude that progressive money is influencing the court’s decisions, said Josh Altic, Ballotpedia director of research.

The organization studied what it called significant contributions – $1,000 or more – from groups that could be identified as either progressive or conservative. The winners got nearly all their significant donations that could be classified from progressive donors; the losers got nearly all theirs from conservative donors.

A separate study looked at court cases since 2013 that involved constitutional issues in which one party was identifiably progressive or conservative, or the progressive-conservative split showed up in friend of the court briefs. Progressive parties got favorable rulings about three-fourths of the time and unfavorable rulings about a fourth of the time, while conservative parties got favorable rulings about 15% of the time and unfavorable rulings about 85% of the time.

Conservative critics of the court might say “there is no balance at all,” Altic said, while progressives or even moderates might say “things are going exactly how we want it to.”

But the study does not make a “causal relationship” between the contributions and the rulings, Altic said. Nor does it consider the rulings for their legal validity, quality or balance.

While the data are interesting, there are some things about Washington and its Supreme Court system that it can’t take into account.

First is that, while Washington elects three people to the nine-member court every two years, the seats are rarely open. Justices tend to retire in the middle of a six-year term, and a replacement is named by the governor.

Second, while the seats are officially non-partisan, for the last 39 years, the governor has been a Democrat who, not surprisingly, tends to pick a replacement who at least agrees with them on some issues.

Once on the bench, a sitting jurist tends to have an advantage in most Washington judicial races, not just the Supremes. Only two sitting justices in the last 32 years have lost when running for re-election.

Third, while there have been 17 elections for spots on the nine-member court since 2014, only eight have been contested, sometimes by challengers with little money or questionable credentials, such as driving a Zamboni machine to smooth the ice during hockey games. In only three of those elections, all in 2016, did sitting justices face challenges from well-financed opponents with backing from conservative sources.

The races in 2016 tended to show a definite split between Eastern and Western Washington voters. In the other five contested races, the regional split was either less pronounced or absent.

Fourth, many of the cases before the court involve issues neither progressive nor conservative. But when the court is ruling on the constitutionality of an issue, it’s dealing with a constitution that was originally written in 1889, by some people who were Progressives and Populists, although those terms meant something a bit different back then.

Altic views the results of the studies as a beginning, not an end. He’d like to do similar studies in more states and compare Washington results with a conservative state that also elects justices in a nonpartisan system.

“In a vacuum, it’s pretty hard to make hard and fast conclusions,” Altic said. “A neutral conclusion would be that it’s interesting data … and interesting questions could be answered by expanding the study.”

Nothing to back up this claim

While Ballotpedia was releasing data and being cautious about conclusions, some WSU-UW partisans were jumping to conclusions not supported by any data after a ruling last week on the fight over control of the Pac-12 assets.

Some took to Twitter, which its new owner would like us to call X, to say the court was in the tank for University of Washington because they probably all went to U-Dub Law School. Others said the original injunction from Whitman County Superior Court Judge Gary Libey was suspect because he’s a Coug.

To be clear, the ruling didn’t come from the justices but from Commissioner Michael Johnston. He did get his bachelor’s degree at UW, but his law degree from Gonzaga. Libey got his undergrad degree at WSU, but his JD from GU Law.

For the record, because it’s likely to come up when the full court takes this case up in the coming months, only Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis graduated from UW Law School. Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez got his law degree at UC Berkeley, Justices Charles Johnson and Helen Whitener at Seattle University, Justices Barbara Madsen and Debra Stephens at Gonzaga, Justice Susan Owens at University of North Carolina, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud at USC and Justice Mary Yu at Notre Dame.

Johnson and Madsen got their bachelor’s degrees from UW, but the others have degrees from all over the country. Dawgs are a definite minority on the nine-member court.

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