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A champion of justice for all

Tom Chambers, the late state Supreme Court Justice, was a staunch defender of the disadvantaged. His ruling in the Braam case compelled major changes in our foster care system.
Late State Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers

Late State Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers Courtesy of the Washington Supreme Court

Former state Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers, who died earlier this month, grew up in modest circumstances in Eastern Washington and started, early on, protecting the rights of the less powerful.

As a legal intern in the early 1970s, he worked on the case of a union organizer and a legal services lawyer who had been convicted of trespass in Walla Walla. The two were talking to farm workers at the workers’ residence on a farmer’s land. The state Supreme Court ruled that workers’ rights included talking to lawyers and organizers at their homes.  

After that, Chambers became many things: successful personal injury lawyer, President of the Washington State Bar Association, Supreme Court Justice. In all his roles, he never forgot those who have a harder road in life and who are victims of injustice or abuse.

As a leader of the state bar and on the court, Chambers worked to make justice available to all. He pushed to establish the Access to Justice Board, which oversees statewide access efforts. He also helped spearhead the Supreme Court’s support for, and funding of, the Washington Civil Legal Needs Study, which dramatically displays the huge gap between the need for legal help among low-income people and the available resources.

Much of Chambers’ work on the Supreme Court reflected the empathy he retained for working people, those in difficult financial straits and those who are especially vulnerable. I’m not suggesting he didn’t follow the law, but rather that when interpretive choices came before the court (as they often do in the Supreme Court), his decisions were informed by this caring viewpoint.

One of Chambers’ best-known opinions is Braam v. State, which created the momentum for major change in the state foster care system. Those of us who worked on the case did our jobs, I’d humbly like to think, by telling the distressing stories of our foster clients and giving the court what we thought was a sound legal basis for ruling in our favor. But the scope and depth of the complex settlement that has driven positive change were made possible by Chambers’ unequivocal declaration for the unanimous court. Foster children, he wrote, have constitutional rights that the State is “bound to respect,” rights to “conditions free of unreasonable risk of danger, harm, or pain, and …adequate services to meet the basic needs of the child.”

Chambers wrote many other opinions which reflected these broad values. He authored one of the dissents in the court’s 5-4 rejection of same-sex marriage in 2006; an important decision on public defense that clarified the rights of the accused to adequate representation (State v. A.N.J.); and a recent decision arguing that the trustee of a low-income senior’s house had violated Washington’s Consumer Protection Act by refusing to halt an unnecessary foreclosure without a bank’s permission (Klem v. Washington Mutual).

Chambers showed his commitment to fairness to the end. After he left the Supreme Court, Chambers, though quite ill, continued to work on cases that he had started while he was still a Justice.

In one of these cases (State v. Saintcalle), the court’s written decision came out just a few months before Chambers’ death. In it, members of the court wrestled with important issues around when a prosecutor violates the constitutional ban on race discrimination by “striking” a prospective juror of color. (Lawyers on each side of a case are allowed to dismiss a few prospective jurors without explanation, but it’s illegal to discriminate in the process.)

The justices, in multiple opinions, pointed out that very few of these claims is successful, even where there’s strong evidence of discrimination. They debated the need to change the law in order to align it with the realities of racial bias. But this debate didn’t help Mr. Saintcalle. Eight members of the court upheld his conviction even though his case had sparked deep concerns about discrimination in the jury selection process.  


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Dec 23, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you so much for this article about perhaps the finest Justice for the people of WA we have had. All your points are true, and those cases are so important. But let me add, there are so many areas of the law where Justice Chambers left an indelible mark, especially when it came to protecting consumers, all citizens and injured people. Whether it was obliterating adhesion contracts that were unconscionable and found to not be in the public interest, to attacking slimy shady business practices, to not allowing government, or big business and the insurance industry to run roughshod on our citizenry, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tom. He is the antithesis of the recent actions of the US Supreme Court that empowered corporate and government power over the rights of the people. RIP Tom, you have certainly earned it. A life well and fully lived.

LShannon

Posted Mon, Dec 23, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

[Tom Chambers] started, early on, protecting the rights of the less powerful.

That may have been how he started out, but while on the state's highest court he repeatedly acted in ways contrary to that principle. He in fact abandoned it with some regularity. It's not hard to understand why: doing so suited his political career.

Tom Chambers had no problem acting dishonestly to provide unwarranted case law to taxing districts. Those choices he made – each an abuse of his considerable powers – were intended to harm “the rights of the less powerful”. This deviant conduct earned him the support of the richest PAC-funders in the state, which meant his reelection campaigns were cakewalks.

Any lawyers or judges read Crosscut? Let's discuss Chambers' legacy in terms of the most significant opinions he signed relating to the powerful and unaccountable taxing districts here, the ones that are unlike any others in this country. These are the four most significant opinions that bench issued while he was on it in the area of individuals' rights as taxpayers as against municipalities:

1) Sane Transit v. Sound Transit, 151 Wn.2d 60 (2004);

2) Sheehan v. Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, 155 Wn.2d 790 (2005);

3) Larson v. Seattle Popular Monorail Authority, 156 Wn.2d 752 (2006); and

4) Pierce County v. State, 159 Wn.2d 16 (2006).

Chambers signed each of those majority opinions. Here is an essay describing what the majority did in them:

http://susan-owens.webs.com/

The dishonest techniques it employed are crass:

-- It repeatedly misrepresents the legal claims that actually are raised by the individuals.

-- It ignores the meritorious legal challenges laid out in the briefing.

-- It invents lame legal arguments for attribution to the parties it wants to lose.

-- It ignores fundamental legal principles in order hand out unjustified case law to the rich entities in whose favor the justices are biased.

Chambers played that dirty game with gusto.

PS: The author of this cloying hagiography is employed by a non-profit, called Columbia Legal Services. That entity has a board comprised in large part of municipal and bar association attorneys. It also receives big grants from entities that are direct financial beneficiaries of this pattern of judicial misconduct. For those reasons it makes perfect sense that he would paint this picture of Chambers that is designed to mislead the public into thinking that bench upholds its rights.

crossrip

Posted Wed, Dec 25, 3:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you Crossrip.

kieth

Posted Tue, Dec 24, 5:35 p.m. Inappropriate

A jury of 12 awarded Mr. Chambers and his 2 co-plaintiff attorneys approx. $.09 on the dollar regarding a case against the State of Washington in the early 1990's. Can't remember the case name or number, but as a juror I got $160 for 16 days of jury duty on that case. It was an overreach as the state had offered a few beans less than the approx. $110,000 the jury awarded. The jury decision is one of the best decisions I have ever participated in and helped resolve.

animalal

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