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Originally published Thursday, October 9, 2014 at 5:04 PM

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Editorial: Fight Citizens for Judicial Excellence’s cynicism, flip-flops on the courts

The political action committee focused exclusively on Washington judicial elections should cease and desist.


Seattle Times Editorial

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A POLITICAL action committee’s blatant attempt to pack Washington courts with judges especially receptive to drunken-driving defendants is a cynical manipulation of the state’s system of electing judges.

The cash-rich Citizens for Judicial Excellence, composed largely of criminal-defense attorneys, has turned on judges it previously praised. The group has amassed a $250,000 war chest to elect judges these attorneys hope will be more sympathetic to defendants.

The flip-flop is so distasteful to some group members they have left the organization.

In one egregious example, the group abandoned its previous praise of sitting King County District Court Judge Ketu Shah to endorse Sarah Hayne, a challenger with less experience. She also happens to be the spouse of the group’s co-founder, Stephen Hayne, a Bellevue defense attorney.

Last year, Stephen Hayne described Shah as an “excellent judge” and boasted that the group could be a “powerful ally” for Shah in the November election.

Now with Hayne’s wifein the race, political action committee members claim the judge is inordinately harsh in his rulings against defendants. The group states that it “carefully screens” judicial candidates, yet Shah says he was never contacted before the PAC issued its endorsement.

PAC members defend their actions, saying conventional methods of complaining about judicial conduct expose attorneys to reprisals from judges without improving conduct.

Defense attorneys — people very familiar with the day-to-day behavior of judges — should have a safe way to bring grievances against those on the bench.

Still, that does not justify Citizens for Judicial Excellence’s actions, which are part of a disturbing trend of political-interest groups seeking to influence the judiciary across the nation. Such intrusions have become so pervasive that the nonpartisan Justice at Stake organization formed to combat the practice in state Supreme Court races.

Washington voters have seen this play out in Supreme Court races in the past. In 2006, the Building Industry Association of Washington spent hundreds of thousands of dollars — unsuccessfully — to defeat former Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. News reports exposed the effort and may have triggered a backlash against BIAW’s preferred candidate.

But judicial races at lower court levels are not likely to get that kind of attention, making them more vulnerable to money’s influence.

Other options for judicial selection exist. Make judge races publicly financed or switch to a nonpartisan merit selection system with retention elections. Judges also could make stronger rules for their own recusal.

In the meantime, the only defense against special-interest influence is for voters to do a better job of educating themselves.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).



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