A Judgment Call

IT WAS EASY to like Michael Spearman when he was a crusading lawyer. Now he's a King County Superior Court Judge running for state Supreme Court, and he's a lot harder for a layperson to warm up to.

He's all about the law, precedent, and putting aside one's personal feelings. In the old days, I loved to hear him hammer away at what the war on drugs was doing to our justice system or the reasons for educating young people about their rights under the Constitution.

He says the difference between the passionate advocate of old and the dispassionate judge of today is of vital importance. Moreover, he argues, the fact that he's learned to put aside his personal feelings is precisely the reason we should elect him to our highest court.

I FIRST interviewed Spearman about 12 years ago for an article about mandatory minimums—a frightening trend exacerbated by the war on drugs in which lawmakers were dictating what sentences judges were required to hand out for certain crimes. In Washington, it is called determinate sentencing. At the time, Spearman was on some commission or other that was examining the effect of determinate sentencing on the justice system. Spearman was addressing the fallout from the Legislature's mandatory harsh sentences for drug offenders that had prohibited judges from making allowances for mandatory treatment, first-time offenses, and the like. Spearman was in the middle of it, trying to bring some sanity to the process. (Incidentally, finally this year, thanks to state Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Shoreline, and state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, treatment for drug offenders has been made a much higher priority.)

I encountered Spearman for the second time covering the birth of a new organization now known as Mothers for Police Accountability. The founder, Harriet Walden, had enlisted Spearman to give workshops to young people on what their constitutional rights were when they were stopped by police. It impressed me as a great approach to the vexing problem of police-community relations—particularly in predominantly African-American neighborhoods— a kind of a civics class-meets-youth empowerment workshop.

Michael Spearman, he was my kind of lawyer.

I kept track of him over the next decade, mostly through the newspaper and a mutual friend, Judge Linda Lau. (Full disclosure: I had dinner with him once at Judge Lau's house eight or nine years ago.)

I next met up with him in this year's editorial board interview at Seattle Weekly. In the intervening years, he had become very judicial. He talked a lot about being the chief criminal judge on the King County Superior Court. In that role, he brought together a wide range of interests—the prosecutors, the defenders, the sheriff, the jail officials, the politicians—and hammered out changes to improve the efficiency of the justice system. He believes the result is a cheaper, quicker, fairer criminal court where defendants don't wait as long for trial. That's not the kind of thing that gets my lefty pulse pounding, but it earned him the endorsement in this race of Republican King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and conservative King County Sheriff Dave Reichert. Yikes! Had Michael gone over to the other side?

HE TELLS me that I misunderstand the role of the judge if I see it as an ideological battle guided by political passion.

Picking judges like we choose politicians "leads to judicial legislating," he warns. "The only way you can avoid that is by having someone who is committed to a fair and impartial judiciary.

"As a judge, any time you get emotional about something, it leads you to make a wrong decision because you are being guided by your passion. You are not making a fair application of the law because you want to reach your result so badly. You need to sit back and see how the Constitution applies in this particular case."

Spearman cites a surprising example: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The U.S. Supreme Court "got led astray by their patriotism," he claims.

He believes that lesson is highly relevant today. "Our nation is in a time of crisis after the 9/11 attacks. It's a time when we need to be careful about safeguarding our rights as citizens. It's easy to think we can disregard some of our rights in exchange for safety and security. It's the duty of the court to be very vigilant."

If that's what it means to be a fair and impartial judge, not guided by political passion, it sounds pretty great to me.

Michael Spearman, he's my kind of judge.


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