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Race: one problem with electing judges

In a contest with a candidate who was repeatedly described as unqualified, the state's first Latino-surnamed justice, praised by Republicans and Democrats, lost in most counties but was saved by big support in a number of areas. What does that say about our system of picking judges?
Washington state's current Supreme Court justices

Washington state's current Supreme Court justices State of Washington

I did a double take when first checking The Seattle Times website for breaking election results the evening of Tuesday, August 7. By 8:30 p.m., in the race for Washington Supreme Court Position 8, the votes of 87,000 Washington citizens had been counted for Bruce Danielson, who had not campaigned for the position. Even worse, at that moment he was leading incumbent Justice Steven Gonzalez by nearly 16,000 votes. 

I then realized that the early returns were mostly from Central and Eastern Washington. I felt mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was relieved that populous King County — where then-Judge Gonzalez spent 10 years on the Superior Court bench — had not yet submitted its results. 

But I was completely dismayed that more than 87,000 voters — which when all was said and done became 438,867 voters — chose Danielson, an unqualified candidate for our state’s highest court. Tragically, many of those 438,867 citizens chose Danielson over Gonzalez because one of the candidates has a Latino surname. Let me explain.

Justice Gonzalez beat Danielson in Kitsap County — Danielson’s home county — by a landslide. He should have won in a landslide across the state. 

Justice Gonzalez relentlessly campaigned across the state. He was rated “exceptionally well qualified” by eight organizations and was endorsed by the editorial boards of major newspapers throughout the state. Danielson, on the other hand, refused to be rated and did not campaign. He was even rejected by the community that knows him best; in fact, in a Kitsap County bar poll, the lawyers chose Justice Gonzalez by a margin of 90 to 2.

Justice Gonzalez also enjoyed broad bipartisan support, receiving endorsements from both gubernatorial candidates — Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee — and both attorney general candidates — Bob Ferguson and Reagan Dunn; not to mention 300 judges statewide. It is no surprise that Justice Gonzalez raised a record amount of money for a judicial primary. 

As for Danielson, his candidacy simply had no support, for lack of effort.  Danielson did not participate in a single candidate forum or endorsement interview, nor did he raise a dime for his campaign.

But campaigns aside, the candidates were incomparable on the merits. Justice Gonzalez served for 10 years as a Superior Court judge and, at times, was named “Judge of the Year” by numerous organizations. Gonzalez speaks four languages, received his law degree from U.C. Berkeley, and had a decorated career as an attorney in private practice and as a federal prosecutor before he became a judge. 

By contrast, Danielson’s career seems unremarkable by any measure. He has lost multiple races for Kitsap County Superior Court and Kitsap County prosecutor. In fact, multiple organizations rated Danielson unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court.  On the merits: Judge of the Year vs. Unqualified Candidate.

And yet, despite Justice Gonzalez’s tireless campaigning and distinguished career, Danielson won the vote in 29 counties, while Justice Gonzalez won only 10. Defying all logic, Danielson even out-performed McKenna in some counties. So, what is going on here?

Before becoming a state, Washington was a designated territory for 36 years. During these years, Washington’s judges were appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The territory’s residents complained that these appointed judges — sent from the far-flung corners of the country — had no experience with Washington’s territorial laws and were completely unfamiliar with the local customs and rules of practice. 

The judiciary, it was thought, should derive its power directly from the voters instead of other branches of the government that would undoubtedly fill the bench with loyal party members, rather than qualified jurists. Thus, when Washington became a state in 1889, the delegates to Washington’s constitutional convention resolved that the state would elect its judges. In fact, that decision was part of a nationwide trend: Every state that has entered the union, beginning with Iowa in 1846 through Alaska in 1959, has opted for judicial elections of some form. 


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 5:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe Gonzales suffered from being appointed by Gregoire, a Hand Picked incumbant from an unpopular lame duck Governor? I saw Justice Gonzales speak at Eastern Washington University Commencement, he pandered for votes, spoke of how he didn't like electing judges (He prefers life time appointments for the Supreme Court) while switching between addressing the crowd in english and spanish.

The WSSC is also one of the least diverse courts in the State. Sanders, the last diverse opinion on the court, was run off by partisan staff and Justices in the last election cycle. Gonzales doesn't represent diversity from the current court unless your only consideration is race....as the author apparently is.

Cameron

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 6:13 a.m. Inappropriate

The vast majority of voters make no pro-active effort to educate themselves about candidates or issues on the ballot. They rely on the media, including campaign ads, to inform them. Judicial races and other matters crowded at the bottom of the ballot get little, if any, air time or reporting. In the counties that had no voter's pamphlet the vast majority of the voters had no information about either Mr. Danielson or Mr. Gonzales other than their names. They did not know their qualifications, they did not know about their endorsements, they did not even know if either of them was the incumbent.

Many voters, acknowledging their ignorance, chose simply not to cast a vote in this race.

Cameron's conjecture that any significant number of voters had any knowledge about either of these candidates - other than their names - is not only baseless, it is aggressively and willfully ignorant.

This was a clear example of tribalism in which the bulk of voters in Eastern Washington counties - without any other knowledge of the candidates - based their vote on the candidates' surnames.

The state needs to make a greater effort to provide voters with information about the choices on the ballot. We cannot afford an ill-informed electorate.

coolpapa

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Justice Susan Owens was first elected to the Supreme Court in 2000, so has served for 12 years and run a couple of times. She received 63% of the vote in her contested race. Justice Stephen Gonzalez was appointed to the court in January of 2012, is unknown to voters outside of King County, and has never run statewide. He still received over 60% of the vote in his contested race.

Over 60% for both justices with three percentage points dividing a well known incumbent and a justice unknown to the folks in over thirty counties. It's hard to understand why that result supports disenfranchising voters from selecting members of court.

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Galinda is correct that there is racism in judicial elections. I suspect many voters might not recognize that they are engaging in this activity, but that does not change the result of their behavior. Since it is not overt it is hard to pinpoint with certainty in any given race. In the case of Justice Gonzales there may be an east west divide. However, racism may be lurking among the voters in the more urban areas and just did not rear it's head in this race.

With or without a voter guide judicial races are hard to figure out for most voters. I have heard it suggested that when in doubt voters will gravitate toward the name they recognize or seems more familiar. The fact that Danielson did not campaign much supports this proposition. A number of years ago Justice Richard Guy (retired) had a close race with an opponent with a very mainstream sounding name. I do not recall the name. The opponent ran a minimal campaign. In that election there was no race issue involved.

bartlet

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Danielson and Gonzales are both Caucasian, racially. So race has nothing to do with this. The author might claim that cultural bias has had an influence, but race obviously has not.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 2:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Um, leaving aside the inconvenient fact that the name Gonzalez sounds a lot, well, DARKER than Danielson does in the minds of a lot of people, would you be happier if we just called the voters in this race bigots instead of racists?

OK. They're bigots.

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 4:21 p.m. Inappropriate

What is "darker"? Produce the bigots that voted for Danielson.

jhande

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 4:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Howabout we ascertain factually whether they voted for Danielson for some reason other than "racism" before calling them either one? I know that's not nearly as much fun as hurling scurrilous accusations around, but it does seem a little more like journalism.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

I spoke from a first hand experience with Gonzales and any voter who googled/binged any details about Gonzales or his appointment to the Supreme Court by Gregoire would have and could have seen the same thing. It is neither aggressively or willfully ignorant to relate what is true and verifiable, unlike the speculative rantings of Coolpapa.

Cameron

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Great research into a troubling problem around elections in our state. It's not just a problem of elections for judges, however, it's how we elect in local races. This was a statewide race and the evidence is pretty clear cut that racially-polarized voting is taking place - same happens in local races (city council, school board, etc.).

That's why you have nearly 50% Latinos living in the City of Yakima, but no Latino ever elected there. One step in the right direction would be district elections, so that significant populations within a city (or county) could actually have a say in who represents them. The state Voting Rights Act would help convince jurisdictions to consider this shift.

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 4:40 p.m. Inappropriate

The contention, that since everyone just thinks Gonzalez is the greatest, that individuals that voted for Danielson are bigots/racists is about the most undemocratic thing I have heard in a while. Why bother to have elections? The contention is that the election Gonzalez was in was a mere formality, that the only acceptable result of the election was a Gonzalez win. That contention s nonsense, insulting to Washington State citizens, and bigoted on it's own.

Gonzalez is associated with the Democratic Party. Citizens in Eastern Washington do not like the Democratic Party. Gonzalez supports abortion rights, many citizens in Eastern Washington do not support abortion rights. Anyone running for judge, associated with democrats, will not get many votes in Eastern Washington.

The accusations of racism/bigotry are unfounded, and based on nothing. I could take any voting results and do a study that shows that my candidate lost because of the moral failures of the voters, and my study would be a bunch of BS. Just as the study about the Gonzalez election is BS. The racists/bigots are the individuals, who think Gonzalez should have won based upon his ethnicity.

I tire of United States citizens, who call themselves hispanic/latino, claiming that they may only be represented by a member of their ethnicity. What if everyone claimed that they could only be represented by their ethnicity? There are more ethnicities than there are elected positions. How do we fix that? Or are we only interested in some ethnicities having special privilege? The claim that one may only be represented by a member of their own etnicity is bigoted/racist.

So, if hispanic/latinos may only be represented by a member of their own ethnicity, then wouldn't it be proper for citizens of non-hispanic ehtnicity to only vote for an individual of their own ethnicity? Why are hispanic/latinos special?

jhande

Posted Mon, Oct 8, 6:08 p.m. Inappropriate

"The contention is that the election Gonzalez was in was a mere formality, that the only acceptable result of the election was a Gonzalez win." The contention is that no one else filed against Gonzalez, a highly qualified candidate, so Danielson, an unqualified candidate, jumped at the chance at the last minute. With only two candidates, the race automatically goes to the general (not the primary). And you ignore the fact that almost nothing about Danielson's (dis)qualifications was known to most voters.

"Gonzalez is associated with the Democratic Party." How so? Because Gregoire appointed him? Because he was a judge in King County? Regardless, party affiliation is not part of judicial races in this state. Are you aware of some advertising against Gonzalez in Eastern Washington pointing out his "Democratness"?

"The accusations of racism/bigotry are unfounded, and based on nothing." Not true; the accusations are based on careful analysis of the votes precinct by precinct. There is clear (statistically significant) evidence of anti-hispanic bias by voters in Eastern Washington.

"I tire of United States citizens, who call themselves hispanic/latino, claiming that they may only be represented by a member of their ethnicity." Where is this claim made? If a self-identified group in an electoral district constitutes almost half of the population, but none of the elected representatives (e.g., City Council in Yakima), why shouldn't they want to be represented on the council? "There are more ethnicities than there are elected positions" is a straw argument.

louploup

Posted Tue, Oct 9, 3:01 a.m. Inappropriate

How do you know what was known to voters? Advertisements have nothing to do with anything. Gonzalez being appointed by Gregoire, and being from King County, would lose Gonzalez votes.

Did the county Republican parties put out the word as to Gonzalez's tie to Gregoire. Nobody did any study to find that out. That would be a topic that would be brought up at coffee shops, and spread by word of mouth. Nobody did a study about that.

Did any of the local radio hosts say that Gonzalez was tied to Gregoire? Nobody did a study on that. In Eastern Washington, radio is listened to more than in Western Washington.

Most individuals in Eastern Washington pay no attention to political advertising, as most individuals in Eastern Washington are usually doing other things than paying attention to advertising. There is not the media saturation in Eastern Washington, and people like it that way.

A "careful study" of of voters, precinct by precinct, shows nothing about the reason for individuals votes. This careful study shows no voter suppression, no suppression of candidates of any race, no change in election structure to minimalize the vote of any citizen, and no on the ground interviews with Eastern Washington voters. The careful study gathered no on the ground information. None. The careful study is an advocacy paper. The careful study started with a preconceived notion, and claimed motivation that the study did not study, based on a guy sitting in a room looking at printouts of election results. A PR advocacy paper and nothing else.

The careful study did not number the number of hispanic candidates that have run for election in Eastern Washington. The careful study did not number the number of hispanic candidates associated with Democrats that lost in normally Republican districts. The careful study was no study at all. The careful study did find that a higher percentage of hispanic voters voted for Gonzalez, than non-hispanics that voted for Danielson. So, does this mean hispanics are even bigger racists than non-hispanics? Or does it mean nothing? I think it means nothing.

Where is the data that hispanics are almost half of the voting population of Yakima? I haven't seen it. How many hispanic candidates have run for Yakima City Council, two? One who was originally appointed. That is some huge proof of racism there, two hispanic candidates lost. That shows nothing other than two candidates lost. Candidates lose every election. Until now even hispanic candidates could lose elections; but, now I guess, we are told that hispanic candidates are too special to lose elections.

More on Yakima; Yakima has not changed it's election structure due to an influx of newcomers. Yakima has the same at-large council that it had before the advent of massive immigration. There was no change from a district council to an at-large council in order to minimalize any citizens vote. Yakima has the same form of coucil election it has always had. So, the at-large council in Yakima, put in place before the term "hispanic" had even been accepted as a term (by Richard M Nixon in 1969--part of the Republican "Southern Strategy")cannot be considered racist. There is no evidence of any voter suppression in Yakima, and there is no evidence of any suppression of candidates in Yakima.

The individuals that moved to Yakima made the choice to move to Yakima. They moved to a city with at-large council seats. Their choice. Yakima has no reason to change it's election system because some people move to Yakima, and start whining.

I am not represented by someone of my race, so is the system racist against me? No, United States citizens can be represented by United States citizens of any race/ethnicity. Hispanics are not special.

There are more ethnicities than elected positions, that is not straw man. That means hispanic is just one of many ethnicities. That means that hispanics are not special, and deserving of catered to hispanic's winning elections. Hispanics are not special, or better than anyone else.

jhande

Posted Tue, Oct 9, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

What race is the President?

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