Thursday, October 29, 2020
Oct. 29, 2020

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In Our View: Montoya-Lewis, Whitener should stay on court

The Columbian
Published:

Voters in the Nov. 3 general election have one judicial race in which they can choose between two strong candidates: Washington Supreme Court Pos. 3. While The Columbian Editorial Board recommends that Raquel Montoya-Lewis be chosen to remain on the bench, the fact that it is the only difficult judiciary choice is disconcerting.

Before delving into that, we offer a reminder that this is merely a recommendation. The Columbian suggests that voters study the candidates and the issues before casting an informed ballot.

Montoya-Lewis was appointed to the Supreme Court in December by Gov. Jay Inslee, replacing former Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst, who retired for health reasons. Montoya-Lewis had served on the Whatcom County Superior Court since 2015; prior to that, she was chief judge for the Lummi Nation, Upper Skagit and Nooksack Indian tribes. She is the first Native American to serve on Washington’s high court.

Given her qualifications and her short tenure on the Supreme Court, Montoya-Lewis warrants a full term on the court to demonstrate her merits. The King County Bar Association has rated her exceptionally well-qualified; opponent Dave Larson is considered well-qualified.

Larson has been presiding judge of the Federal Way Municipal Court since 2008. He previously was a trial lawyer for 23 years, and has said he is running to provide the panel with broader input from across the state.

While Montoya-Lewis and Larson both are capable of being effective and thoughtful justices, their race is an anomaly in judicial elections.

Four of the court’s nine justices are up for election this year, and two are running unopposed. Justice G. Helen Whitener, who was appointed to the bench in April, is facing a challenger who received his license to practice law in May. He has neither been in a trial nor had a client.

As Whitener told the Kitsap Sun: “I would not get on a plane with a pilot who just got his license and hadn’t gotten some flying under the guidance of a well-seasoned pilot. That might be a bad analogy, but it is very similar to what we’ve been discussing.” The point is that jurists should demonstrate their ability and their understanding of the law before ascending to the highest court in the state.

Whitener has 14 years of experience as a courtroom attorney and has been a judge since 2013. The editorial board recommends that she be elected to remain on the Supreme Court.

While four races for the state Supreme Court have drawn a total of one qualified challenger, the 10 Clark County Superior Court races this year attracted no challengers. All 10 Superior Court judges were unopposed; in Superior Court elections, that means they automatically retain their seat on the bench.

The editorial board does not know whether it would have recommended that any of the current local judges be replaced; they all have proven to be capable. But voters would have benefited from having qualified challengers to raise issues and draw attention to judicial records.

This shortcoming is not unique to Clark County. In neighboring Cowlitz County, all five judges were up for reelection, and none drew a challenger.

To strengthen Washington’s judicial system, we hope that qualified lawyers will be more willing to seek a spot on the bench in the future. But for now, the editorial board recommends that Raquel Montoya-Lewis and G. Helen Whitener remain on the state Supreme Court.

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