"Hi. This is your county executive Ron Sims," said the familiar voice on my home answering machine. "You may be surprised to hear from me."
Ron was right. I hadn't expected him to leave a phone message, much less a taped "short and urgent reminder" to vote for Laura Gene Middaugh in the race for King County Superior Court, position 26.
This sort of high-profile campaigning hasn't always been a fixture in local judicial races, in part because we still have so few of them. Incumbent judges are rarely challenged and unopposed jurists are simply given certificates of election without appearing on the ballot. Only 10 of the 51 King County Superior Court seats were contested on this year's primary ballot, and most of these were open seat races or attempts to unseat recently appointed judges. Just one incumbent, Middaugh opponent Jeanette Burrage, got retired by the voters.
But at least until they get on the court, judicial candidates no longer have the option of staying above the political fray. Just like any other candidates, wanna-be judges are hiring top political consultants and clogging your mailbox with campaign flyers. They've also gotten results: Middaugh and Judge Jim Doerty, both of whom were trailing on election night, won their races with an electoral boost from late-filing absentee voters. Both candidates, not coincidentally, spent a significant portion of their campaign funds on mailings to absentee voters.
With little tradition of donors digging deep for judicial candidates, some races have proven costly to the candidates themselves. Middaugh's $116,944 campaign treasury included $50,000 in loans, mostly from her husband, State Sen. Adam Kline. Judicial candidate Michael Morgan was being outspent three-to-one by his opponent, appointee judge Mary Yu, so he dumped $50,000 of his own money into the campaign (it didn't help; Yu won decisively).
"The bottom line is that these races are becoming much more politicized," says consultant Lisa Collins of Moxie Media. "To win them, you really need to run a strategic voter contact program."
And even though $100,000 sounds like a big campaign budget for a judge, it isn't much when you consider that some 250,000 voters cast ballots this year in county judicial races (and that another 100,000 voters didn't bother to vote for judges). Consultants have developed strategies to fit the situation. Collins, who worked with Yu and Middaugh, identified precincts where residents have traditionally voted in judicial races. Political consultant Cathy Allen, who worked with Doerty, limited some mailers to households with at least two registered voters.
Will judicial seats become politicized to the point of other political offices? Allen doubts it. "Incumbency is more of a predictor than money," she says. Although Middaugh managed to displace Burrage, the latter had made herself a target through her unwise, unsuccessful, and highly publicized attempt to mandate that female attorneys wear skirts, not pants, when arguing in her courtroom. In comparison, Judge Donald Haley, the other incumbent challenged, made short work of his challenger. "I think [judicial elections] were always envisioned as a check and balance on a sitting judge," says Allen. "It was designed so someone who had fallen below judicial standards could be thrown out."
Selling the Supremes
Speaking of judicial elections, what are we going to do about our state Supreme Court?
That's the question we hear every two years, as Washington voters bypass qualified high-court candidates to back folks with attractive names. This year's top victim was Court of Appeals Judge Ken Grosse, who finished third in a three-way primary for position 9, despite being the only experienced appellate judge in the race. Grosse was outpolled by Jim Foley (the small-town lawyer who also survived a Supreme Court primary in 1998) and Tom Chambers (the former state bar president, not the ex-Sonic and high-dunkin' white boy).
In the position two race, the voters' favorite names were Susan Owens (a Clallam County District Court judge and the only female candidate in the race) and Jeff Sullivan (a longtime Yakima prosecutor). Among those bypassed was experienced but unfortunately named Supreme Court commissioner Geoff Crooks, who finished dead last.
Good luck on actually campaigning for the job. Seattle attorney Hugh Spitzer drew headlines two years ago when his campaign spent more than $200,000 yet didn't make the finals. Given that about 825,000 state residents cast ballots in this year's court primary, Spitzer's campaign budget was small change.
One quick suggestion: Why not borrow the Court of Appeals system, which splits the state into three geographic divisions, or even cut the state into nine Supreme Court districts? A $200,000 budget could then push a candidate to victory, and, as an added bonus, you'd get true geographic representation on the high court.
A solid constitution
We can only hope the drafters of the Washington state constitution got credit in heaven for their good work.
Citing the protections granted by our state government's guiding document, the Court of Appeals recently struck down the city of Seattle's preemployment drug testing program. The city had originally hoped to prescreen all potential hires for drug use but decided to limit the testing program to jobs considered "safety sensitive."
However, the court found the city's definition of safety-sensitive jobs to be "breathtakingly broad." In fact, more than half of the city's job classifications were so judged, including such life-or-death occupations as golf course technician, tennis instructor, usher, and public relations specialist. (As a working journalist, I recognize the enormous danger posed by PR people on crack.)
Most amusing was the city's claim that, since lots of private businesses require drug tests, the public's "reasonable expectation of privacy" has likewise eroded. Nice try, folks, but that's not what it says in the constitution.