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Washington Supreme Court races: What you need to know and why they matter

Temple of Justice in Olympia
Parker Miles Blohm
Temple of Justice in Olympia

This year, Washington voters have a say in who they'd like to see on the state Supreme Court. The two justices most recently appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee drew challengers in this election. Two incumbents are running unopposed.

Hugh Spitzer teaches state and federal constitutional law at the University of Washington. He also has the perspective of having run for a seat on the court in 1998. He spoke with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco about who is on the court, why it matters, and how he thinks about this choice.

Listen to the conversation above, and read highlights from the interview below. Both have been edited for length and clarity. 


On the value of a diverse court in Washington state: Diversity is incredibly important because it brings a range of experiences to the bench and people from different backgrounds can understand the issues and concerns of a wide variety of people in our community. I will say that our court, while being diverse ethnically, religious background and so on, is not as geographically diverse. We just have one justice, Chief Justice (Debra) Stephens, who comes from Eastern Washington, from Spokane. And we no longer have anyone on the court who is comes from a super conservative or super libertarian background. We used to always have one or two. And right now, they're basically mainstream to somewhat liberal in terms of their backgrounds.

On what voters need to know about the importance of these races: This is the highest court in Washington state. It's important to remember that states actually have more impact on our day-to-day lives than the federal government does. It’s state laws and the state constitution that make the real difference on things like domestic relations law, property law, contracts, torts like personal injury cases, the kinds of things that regular people are likely to see.

So the court's decisions are likely to have more effect on our day-to-day lives. The key thing is you want to vote for judges and justices who are experienced, who seem to have a pretty broad background and experience in different things and different types of jobs. And so that's what I look at. Whether or not I agree with how a particular judge rules that a particular case, I really care about the experience and hard work.

On the balance between the U.S. and State Supreme Courts: Under what I guess I would call a Madisonian system, from James Madison, he and the other people who wrote the U.S. Constitution intentionally set things up so that there would be conflict not only between the different branches of the federal government, but also conflict between the states and the national government. And that was set up that way to protect rights.  The Supreme Court, U.S. or a state Supreme Court, the one that protects rights more, that's going to prevail.

The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, says that it's OK for police to go through your garbage doing searches … whereas our state Supreme Court says your garbage can is your castle. It still belongs to you. And the police cannot search your garbage can without a judicial warrant. That's a greater rights protection that we enjoy here. If there's a conflict between the interpretation of the state constitution and the result and the U.S. Constitution, then the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court always prevails. But those conflicts are very rare. And so the state supreme courts and state constitutions are really important in terms of protecting individual liberties and rights.

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