Was Sanders Smeared?

As the Supreme Court justice gets creamed in King County, questions about the Seattle Times' treatment.

At press time it was looking likely that Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders would lose his re-election bid to challenger Charlie Wiggins, and for the same reason that Senator Patty Murray won—a decisive vote in King County. The local tally is 58 percent in favor of Wiggins, whereas statewide Wiggins has just over 50 percent. The big margin in King County may be due, at least in part, to a last-minute controversy fomented by the Seattle Times regarding some of Sanders' comments on race. Yet Sanders insists that the Times attributed things to him that he never said. For instance, in a column just a few days before Election Day explaining the Times' decision to withdraw its endorsement of Sanders and embrace Wiggins instead, Times editorial page editor Ryan Blethen said Sanders made the "claim that dark skin means a person is more likely to be a criminal." Sanders calls that characterization of his comments "outrageous . . . I never said why people commit crimes. I said I think people are in prison because they commit crimes." To be exact, he said African Americans were in prison—in numbers disproportionate to their population—because they committed crimes. He says he was reacting to a statement by a court staffer who suggested that racism was the reason for the disproportionate numbers. Even Sanders critic Jerry Large, another Times columnist, seemed to allow Sanders' point, in a recent column: "I would have amended the judges' [i.e., Sanders and fellow Justice Jim Johnson] remarks on crime by saying that sometimes circumstances increase the rates of certain crimes." On this, Sanders says he does not disagree. "I don't think people are more likely to commit crime because of race. I think they are more likely to commit crime because their support system has broken down." He says he learned this in part by visiting an African American three-striker in prison—sent to jail for life because he robbed an espresso stand with a finger in his pocket. Sanders felt the sentence was unfairly harsh, and said so in a dissenting court opinion. That opinion, and a host of others, was cited by civil-rights attorney Lem Howell in an op-ed sticking up for Sanders, whom the attorney said "has done more to defend the rights of the accused regardless of race than any of his colleagues." Sanders says he doesn't know how any of this affected the election. But he says he has concluded that Barack Obama was wrong when he said we need to talk about race. "We can't talk about race." People who state "a simple truth," he says, get penalized.

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