by AMANDA WINTERS
Four candidates vying for a vacant Washington State Supreme Court judge position and one candidate vying to be re-elected to the state high court discussed constitutional issues and the cost of justice at a July 16 Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Susan Owens, who lived in Clallam County for 29 years before being elected to the Washington State Supreme Court in November 2000, was the only candidate for Position 2 in attendance at the luncheon. Opponents Douglas McQuaid and Scott Staffne, both Seattle attorneys, did not show up for the forum and neither did Position 8 candidates Bruce Danielson, of Port Orchard, and recently appointed Justice Steve Gonzalez, of Seattle.
All four candidates for Position 9 attended: Bruce Hilyer, King County Superior Court judge; John Ladenburg, former Pierce County prosecutor and county executive; former Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, of Olympia; and appellate attorney Sheryl Gordon McCloud, who lives in Kitsap County.
The four Position 9 candidates tried to distinguish themselves in their opening statements. Hilyer said he has 12 years experience as a trial court judge who hears criminal, civil, family law, probate and juvenile cases.
McCloud said she is running because “constitutional rights really, really matter.”
McCloud pointed out the state Supreme Court is not a trial court but as the state’s highest court its role is to review constitutional issues and interpret statutes. As an appellate attorney, she has brought such issues before state and federal courts, she said.
Sanders, who narrowly lost re-election to the state Supreme Court in 2010 with 49.65 percent of the votes, said he would like to have his job back. Sanders said he is a defender of property rights and taxpayers who, with a record number of dissenting opinions, isn’t afraid to take an unpopular stance.
Ladenburg said he was a defense attorney and Tacoma City Council member before he was asked by police officers and firefighters to run for Pierce County prosecuting attorney.
Ladenburg said he has handled death penalty cases as both a defense attorney and prosecuting attorney. All death penalty sentences imposed in the state are subject to a four-part review by the state Supreme Court under Washington State law.
Cost of justice
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict asked the candidates if economic hardship should be taken into consideration by the justices.
“I feel like we’re being consumed by process in felony justice,” he said, adding it is costly, time-consuming and will either bankrupt the county or force it to raise taxes.
He was referring to the case of Darold Stenson, who was convicted in the 1993 murder of his wife and business partner. The state Supreme Court ruled evidence was withheld by the prosecutors and they reversed Stenson’s conviction, sending the case back to Clallam County Superior Court.
McCloud, who represented Stenson on his most recent appeal, said in that case there was a serious question of whether he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.
“Do you care enough about people in prison for something that’s not really a crime or do you lock them up and throw away the key?” she asked. McCloud said when a substantial right is at issue, there is a different doctrine to be applied.
Owens, who removed herself from ruling in the Stenson appeal, said process is due under the Due Process Clause in the Constitution under any interpretation.
“All death penalty cases are extremely expensive whether or not they are reversed,” she said.
Sanders agreed there is a lot of money spent in the justice system and pointed out the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the prison population.
“We can do better,” he said.
Ladenburg said it is too expensive and, “We need more common sense on the court.”
Hilyer said the issue with the Stenson case was that the prosecutor should have turned over a piece of clothing to the defense attorney for testing.
“I think judges should be aware of the practical implications of their decisions,” he said referencing a 2002 decision that resulted in the re-assessment of some 300 murder cases.
Affordable Health Care Act
Kaj Ahlburg, an attorney on the losing end of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act, asked what the candidates believed are limits on government under the Constitution in light of the recent decision.
Ladenburg said he agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court that the government has taxing authority. He said he would be cautious in declaring things unconstitutional because such a ruling must meet a high standard.
Hilyer said the country is on a perilous path when the highest cases are tried and decided on political ideologies.
Sanders said there are limited powers of government under the Commerce Clause and that he believes Chief Justice John Roberts “tried to cut the baby in half” with his decision. Cases should be decided on principle, he said.
McCloud said the role of the court is to interpret the legislative branch. The court decided based on the arguments under the Commerce Clause and government taxing authority that the legislation did not violate the Constitution, she said.
In regard to overturning legislation on constitutional grounds, Owens said the standard is very high and it must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the legislation is unconstitutional.