Challengers question judge’s impartiality

BAINBRIDGE — In pursuit of his third term as a State Supreme Court justice, incumbent Richard Sanders has been bombarded with criticism from all sides.

His two opponents, Charlie Wiggins and Bryan Chushcoff, question Sanders’ ability to put his beliefs aside in making decisions and his desire to work with other judges to find a common solution, among other things.

“I think that’s ridiculous,” Sanders said about claims he makes decisions more on beliefs than on the law. “I go much further reading the letter of the law than most of my colleagues on the Supreme Court.”

Sanders said he is the champion of the rights of the individual. He believes the challengers for his seat don’t do enough diligence in questioning policy and simply side with the government.

“I think there must be a level playing field between large entities and individuals,” he said. “I have a track record of protecting their rights. It’s not my job to simply defer to the government without even considering the merits of the case.”

That very same philosophy has put the incumbent under fire from his challengers.

Wiggins, a Bainbridge Island appellate attorney, said he will bring a more open-minded approach and an increased desire to work with other judges to build consensus. A 5-4 split decision on an issue doesn’t yield a conclusive result, he said, and the court needs to come together and give a clear direction.

“Judges should work hard to form the broadest possible consensus to work together and go forward,” he said.

Wiggins cites his experience in the appellate court and on a number of judicial committees as ways he’s learned to cooperate with other judges to present united and clear decisions.

Wiggins threw his hat into the ring early, and he appeared to be the only challenger until Chushcoff, a Pierce County Superior Court judge, registered on the final day of the filing period. Chushcoff’s entrance increases the importance of the Aug. 17 primary, as only two candidates can advance.

Chushcoff jumped into the race believing he was more qualified to connect with people than the other two candidates.

“I deal with real people in my courtroom every day,” he said. “The decisions I make have a real impact on flesh and blood people.”

Chushcoff also saw the importance in building consensus among judges. Instead of settling for the 5-4 votes quickly becoming the norm on the court, Chushcoff believes in using a similar formula employed with juries. In that case, 12 individuals with differing views are brought together to field a common decision. Those disparate points of view should be used to flesh out the correct decision, not take individual stands on a case, he said.

“We ask the Supreme Court to give us guidance to what the law is, but it doesn’t give us a lot of guidance if there’s no consensus,” Chushcoff said.

Each candidate claims he is the best fit to deal with the problems of the people. All of them served as lawyers before spending time on the bench. Wiggins said too much time on the bench away from clients can isolate judges from individuals. He felt it takes real effort to continue reaching out to the people affected by the decisions, something he has done and will continue to do.

“I think there’s real danger that a judge gets out of touch,” he said. “One way a judge can keep in touch is to reach out. I’ve done that in this campaign. I want to understand peoples’ concerns and be engaged.”

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