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Monday, July 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Judging the judges

When I worked for a small Eastern Washington newspaper editorial page, I sometimes had to persuade candidates for the statewide Supreme Court races to drive over for an endorsement interview.

Not all, but some candidates with a jones only for the Seattle-King County Bar Association endorsement needed convincing to venture beyond the Space Needle's line of sight. So I would schedule judicial endorsements during fair week.

Stop by the office, I'd suggest to my reluctant quarry. Then go spend a couple of hours outside the poultry barn, pressing your brochures into the cotton candy-sticky hands of thousands of chilidog-fueled voters.

The math in judicial campaigns used to be different. It was only part credentials, maybe a little whose hand you shook at a small-town fair and too much who had the better-sounding name. Case in point: We might soon have a Johnson troika on the court of nine if candidate Steve joins justices Charles and Jim.

I don't like electing judges; they should be appointed. But elections, with all their vagaries, are what we've got.

The low-key nature of judicial campaigns traditionally gave a large, insider-y King County-based legal community huge sway in these important statewide elections. Few other county bar associations rated the statewide candidates. Ethical rules prohibiting candidates from saying much leave the electorate with little else to go on.

That's changing. Talk about the Supremes these days and, within seconds, you're talking about money. Washington is following the national trend of special-interest groups seeking to influence the judiciary around issues, including tort reform and abortion.

Washington's tipping point was the building industry's financing of Jim Johnson's campaign two years ago and the flow of its members' money into coffers of property-rights attorney John Groen this year.

Funny, but no one was raising a stink when lawyers have been the largest group giving money to judicial candidates. In the two contested Supreme Court races in 2002, $1 out of every $5 came from a lawyer. In the three 2004 contested races, it was about $1 in every $7 — diluted by money from the building industry and responding environmental community.

Though many in the state say the King County Bar's influence is the problem, to their credit, members are trying to figure out ways to provide more-credible information to help voters make good decisions.

Two political-action committees have formed specifically to focus on judicial campaigns. Gov. Chris Gregoire was provoked last week to promise to help raise money for one — Citizens to Uphold the Constitution, which is supported by a coalition of labor and other liberal groups to offset builders' money.

Interestingly, the man who almost got Gregoire's job, Republican Dino Rossi, decided not to appeal Gregoire's narrow victory he said because of the political makeup of the state high court.

The governor says she's shooting for a balance. Frankly, I'd rather she throw her support behind the other PAC, which is devoted to a more-moderate approach to evaluating candidates. The Constitutional Law PAC, formed to support judges who have embraced the value of judicial restraint, has gotten a bad rap from its naysayers, who describe it as a "right-wing, extremist" group.

It does have its roots among the Mainstream Republicans of Washington — a moderate group that still can be pretty scary for some downtown Seattle lawyers and liberal causes. Among its board members are former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, former King County Prosecutor Chris Bayley and Steve Marshall, chair of the Municipal League of King County.

All the board members happen to be pro-choice, says director Alex Hays. And their first judicial endorsement last year was of Susan Agid, the state Appeals Court judge who authored the ruling that affirmed the parental rights of a nonbiological parent in a lesbian relationship. Democrats, he promises, will be on the endorsement committee.

In other words, this is not some archconservative cabal, but a group of people with solid public-service credentials who want to better balance a process that is ripe for undue influence from both the right and the left.

This is a much better way of evaluating judges than trying to glean facts from an onslaught of politicized TV ads or the ring of a name.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

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