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Washington's new chief justice vows to 'follow through' and eradicate bias in the justice system

The state Supreme Court has a new leader.

Chief Justice Steven González was sworn in Monday as the court began its new term in Olympia. González, who is Latino, becomes the first chief justice of color in state history. He’s also the first Jewish chief justice.

González was sworn in during a virtual ceremony.

“We promise to follow through with our commitment to eradicate bias in the justice system,” he said after taking his oath of office. “Not just to point it out and recognize that it exists, but to come up with actual solutions and changes, structural and small, so that we actually can do this thing that we say we care about.”

On June 4, amid social justice protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, all nine of Washington’s Supreme Court justices signed a letter noting the court’s long history of racism and calling on the legal profession to do more.

“I’m very proud of our court. We’re a very diverse group of people,” González said. “We’re not here to complain about the barriers we’ve faced or may face. We’re here to remove them for the people who follow us, to hold the door open.”

The opening ceremony included the swearing in of Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson and Justice Debra Stephens, who won re-election in November. Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis was also sworn in, after being elected to a full term following her appointment to the court by Gov. Jay Inslee last year. Justice Helen Whitener also won a term after her appointment, but González said she was sworn in last week during a private ceremony.

Inslee was among those speaking at Monday’s proceedings, saying that the recent presidential election – and the challenges to the results – were evidence of the judiciary’s power and importance.

“Never in American history,” Inslee said, “has it been more clear that the judicial branch is the last bulwark against coordinated efforts to undermine our elections, and potentially change the balance of power in government against the express will of the American people.”

Update, Jan. 12: This story was updated to note the swearing in of Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson, whose name was omitted from the original version.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.
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