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Education Rulings Spark Opposition To Washington Supreme Court Justices Up For Re-Election

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Alan Copsey, right, a deputy attorney general for the state of Washington, speaks during a hearing before the Washington State Supreme Court regarding a lawsuit against the state over education funding, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in Olympia, Wash.

For the first time in decades, all of the Washington Supreme Court Justices up for re-election are facing serious opposition. Much of it has to do with the court’s controversial rulings on charter schools and public school funding. Every Seat Has Opposition

There are three justices up for re-election. Chief Justice Barbara Madsen is being opposed by Kittitas County Prosecutor Greg Zemple for Position 5; Justice Mary Yu is being challenged by David DeWolf, a Gonzaga University law professor, for Position 1; and Justice Charlie Wiggins in Position 6 is facing Dave Larson, a Federal Way Municipal Court judge. 

Opponents Disagree With Education Decisions

The Washington Supreme Court was widely criticized for its decision declaring charter schools unconstitutional. And in McCleary v. Washington, the court decided the state was violating the state constitution by not adequately funding K-12 education. And the court has held state lawmakers in contempt of court for failing to put enough money into the schools and has issued fines against lawmakers of $100,000 a day.

What Is The Role Of The Judiciary?

At a candidate forum in Spokane sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Gonzaga law professor David DeWolf said the court overstepped its bounds.

“The difficult task of deciding what an education for the 21st century looks like lies with the Legislature. It is not to empower the court to perform the legislative task,” DeWolf said. 

His opponent, Justice Mary Yu, and the other incumbents insist they are doing what the court is supposed to do. Here’s how Yu describes her judicial philosophy:

“I have to ask, how do I approach a particular case, and it frankly is always starting with the limited issue that’s been framed by the parties. And then I think, do I apply the law as it is, or has it been shown to be incorrect and harmful and does there need to be some sort of change,” Yu said.

Lots Of Outside Expenditures In Races

Much has been made over the independent expenditures in these races.

For example, charter school advocacy groups have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign to unseat Chief Justice Barbara Madsen.

She says she’s not implying that it would influence her opponent, “but it is naïve to think that money does not erode public trust in the courts whether or not they have integrity and are honest,” she said.

Madsen’s opponent, Kittitas County Prosecutor Greg Zempel says independent spending by outside groups isn’t something he has control over and points out that, on the other side, the Washington Education Association has been spending money. 

“Money is what money is. Ultimately, it’s about the ethics of the people you’re electing,” said Zempel.

How Do You Define Integrity?

Integrity of the judiciary has been an underlying theme in all of the races. Sitting Supreme Court Justice and candidate Charlie Wiggins says he resents the implication that the court only ruled against charter schools because of campaign donations from the Washington Education Association.

”I voted to find the charter schools unconstitutional, but it wasn’t because the WEA gave me any money — because they didn’t give me any money in the last election,” Wiggins said.

“Wiggins opponent, Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson says he’s looking at the broader issue.

“Bottom line is there is a confidence issue and how do we deal with it. A lot of focus has been the mistakes that have been made, the criticisms are levied and my point is we have to figure out how we’re going to move on from here,” Larson said.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.