Washington State Supreme Court

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Washington State Supreme Court
Court information
Justices:   9
Founded:   1889
Chief:  $168,000
Associates:  $168,000
Judicial selection
Method:   Non-partisan election of judges
Term:   6 years
Active justices

Charles W. Johnson  •  Debra Stephens  •  Barbara Madsen  •  Mary Fairhurst  •  Susan Owens  •  Steven Gonzalez  •  Mary Yu  •  Charlie Wiggins  •  Sheryl McCloud  •  

Seal of Washington.png

The Washington State Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Washington. It is based in Olympia in the Temple of Justice on the state capitol grounds. Nine justices serve on the court; they are elected in non-partisan elections to serve six-year terms.

The court's duties and responsibilities are defined in Article IV of the Washington State Constitution of 1889. That constitution originally set the number of judges on the court at five, giving the Washington state legislature the right to change the number of judges from time to time as it deemed advisable.


The current justices of the court are:
JudgeTermSelected by
Justice Charles W. Johnson1991-2014
Justice Debra Stephens2008-2014Gov. Christine Gregoire
Chief justice Barbara Madsen1992-2016
Justice Mary Fairhurst2002 - 2014
Justice Susan Owens2000-2018
Justice Steven Gonzalez2012 - 2018Christine Gregoire
Judge Mary Yu2014-PresentGov. Jay Inslee
Justice Charlie Wiggins2011-2016
Justice Sheryl McCloud2013-2019

Chief justice

The Chief Justice serves as the court's chief spokesperson, presiding over the court’s public hearings and serving as the administrative head of the state’s trial and appellate court system. The Chief Justice also chairs the Board for Judicial Administration (BJA), which is the policy-setting group of the state judiciary.[1] Up until 1995, the chief justice was determined through a rotation system. In 1995, the voters of the state passed a constitutional amendment changing this system to one where the Chief Justice is elected by the other justices. That same amendment changed the term of the Chief Justice from two to four years.

Barbara Madsen is the current Chief Justice of the court. She was sworn in on January 11, 2010 to fill the remainder of Gerry Alexander's term. Madsen is only the second woman to fill the role of Chief Justice on the Washington Supreme Court.


The jurisdiction of the Washington State Supreme Court is defined in Section 4 of Article IV of the Washington State Constitution.


Section 4 ("Jurisdiction") of the Washington State Constitution "The supreme court shall have original jurisdiction in habeas corpus, and quo warranto and mandamus as to all state officers, and appellate jurisdiction in all actions and proceedings, excepting that its appellate jurisdiction shall not extend to civil actions at law for the recovery of money or personal property when the original amount in controversy, or the value of the property does not exceed the sum of two hundred dollars ($200) unless the action involves the legality of a tax, impost, assessment, toll, municipal fine, or the validity of a statute. The supreme court shall also have power to issue writs of mandamus, review, prohibition, habeas corpus, certiorari and all other writs necessary and proper to the complete exercise of its appellate and revisory jurisdiction. Each of the judges shall have power to issue writs of habeas corpus to any part of the state upon petition by or on behalf of any person held in actual custody, and may make such writs returnable before himself, or before the supreme court, or before any superior court of the state or any judge thereof."

Judicial selection

The rules for electing justices to the court are set out in Article IV of the Washington Constitution and in Chapter 2.06 of the Revised Code of Washington. The Article calls for nine justices to be elected to six-year terms in non-partisan elections. In the case of a vacancy, the replacement justice is appointed by the governor.


To be considered a qualified candidate to serve on the Washington Supreme Court, a person must be licensed to practice law in Washington, as laid out in Section 17 of Article IV.

Justices must also retire from service at the end of the calendar year that he or she turns 75, according to Section 3(a) of Article IV of the state constitution. The state legislature is given the leeway under the constitution to reduce the retirement age to 70 should they see fit to do so.

Additionally, according to Section 15 of Article IV, justices of the court are ineligible to serve in any other form of public employment during their term on the court, nor, according to Section 19, are they allowed to practice law in any Washington state court during their tenure on the court.

Political outlook

See also: Political outlook of State Supreme Court Justices

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook of state supreme court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Washington was given a Campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Washington received a score of -0.91. Based on the justices selected, Washington was the 5th most liberal court. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.[2]


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2013 1,578 1,509
2012 1,479 1,439
2011 1,515 1,503
2010 1,556 1,578
2009 1,570 1,832
2008 1,607 1,651
2007 1,468 1,382


Notable decisions

No-contact order

In State v. Warren, a 2008 decision, the court upheld a lower court sentence that permanently banned a convicted child molester from contacting his wife, who was not a direct victim of his crimes. The decision was 8-1, with Richard Sanders the only dissent.

Richard H. Warren, who was convicted of child molestation and child rape against two stepdaughters, in two separate King County Superior Court trials in 2003, had argued that the no-contact order imposed as a sentence after those trials was not "reasonably related" to his crime, and was an unconstitutional violation of his marriage rights.

The court disagreed, saying that based on the evidence, limiting Warren's marriage rights was reasonably necessary to achieve the compelling state interest of protecting the girls and their mother.[4]

Same-sex marriage

In a July 2006 decision that split 5-4, the justices issued six opinions in the case, with some in the majority saying that the state legislature remained free to extend the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples. The four dissenting justices said the majority relied on speculation and circular reasoning to endorse discrimination against gay men and lesbians. The decision consolidated two cases in which state trial courts had struck down a 1998 state law prohibiting same-sex marriages. The cases were brought by 19 gay and lesbian couples seeking the right to marry or to have their marriages from other jurisdictions recognized in Washington.[5]

Prisoners and public records

The Court issued a 5-4 ruling in July 2008 saying that while prisoners may make open records requests, and that the state must fulfill them, the correctional facility is under no obligation to actually deliver the document to the felon.

"The Public Records Act does not limit the department's discretion in prohibiting entry of public records that it reasonably deems inappropriate in a prison setting," Justice Madsen wrote for the majority. Joining her were Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justices Bobbe Bridge, Mary Fairhurst and Charles Johnson.[6]

Dissenters were led by James Johnson.

Public disclosure

  • May 2004. Communications between government agencies and their lawyers are exempt from the state public-disclosure law, the Washington Supreme Court ruled May 13, 2004. In a 5-4 opinion, the court concluded that attorney-client privilege supersedes the requirements of the landmark state Public Disclosure Act, approved by voters as an initiative in 1972. Justice Gerry Alexander, writing for the majority, said it's clear the Legislature created the exemption when it amended the disclosure law, which makes most government documents available to the public, in 1987. Justice Charles Johnson wrote a strongly-worded dissent, labeling the majority's opinion as "absurd," arguing it "renders ineffectual the (law's) strong mandate to agencies that they must disclose public information." News and open-government organizations reacted angrily to the ruling.[7]
  • January 2009. In Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound v. City of Des Moines, justice Debra Stephens wrote the 8-1 majority opinion. Public information advocates hailed the decision.
  • October 2009. In City of Federal Way v. Koenig, written by Susan Owens, the court said that Washington's Public Disclosure Act does not apply to state judicial records. Owens was joined in her opinion by Charles Johnson, Mary Fairhurst, James Johnson, Tom Chambers and Justice Pro Tem Joel M. Penoyar.[8]


Financial disclosure

See also: Center for Public Integrity Study on State Supreme Court Disclosure Requirements

In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Washington earned a grade of D in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.[9]

History of the court

The Washington state capitol in Olympia, which houses the Washington Supreme Court
The Temple of Justice (entrance to the Washington Supreme Court)
Courthouse interior

Washington has had three distinct Supreme Courts in its relatively short history. While part of the Oregon Territory (1848-1853) three justices, appointed by the President of the United States, served on the territorial Supreme Court. When not hearing appeals the three jurists rode circuit, presiding over important trials in three separate and widespread judicial districts which encompassed much of the present-day Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In 1853 the area north of the Columbia River and east to the Continental Divide was separated from Oregon and became the Washington Territory with its own Supreme Court composed of three (and later four) justices.[10]

Constitution of 1889

On October 1, 1889, the people of the Washington "Territory" west of the present Idaho line approved a state constitution, elected public officials and by means of an Act of Congress became a full-fledged member of the Union. The Supreme Court was composed of five justices elected by the voters of the state. John P. Hoyt, Thomas J. Anders, T. L. Stiles, Ralph 0. Dunbar and Elmon Scott were the original members of the court. Hoyt had served on the territorial Supreme Court and was presiding officer at the convention that wrote the new state constitution. Stiles and Dunbar also were delegates to that convention.

The number of justices serving on the Supreme Court has varied from the original five to the present nine. Although justices were no longer responsible for riding the trial court circuit as in territorial days, they continued to experience crowded dockets, necessitating an increase in membership. In 1905 the court was permanently expanded to seven justices and in 1909 the number was increased to the present nine. Between 1889 and 1909 all cases were heard en banc, with all justices participating. Between 1909 and 1969 most cases were heard by a department of the court, each composed of the Chief Justice and four associate Justices. Since establishment of the Court of Appeals in 1969 all cases are heard en banc.

Each justice serves a six-year term, with three submitting themselves to the electorate every two years. Vacancies that occur through resignation or death are filled by the Governor, but these appointees must gain approval of the voters at the next general election. Nearly two-thirds of all justices of the Supreme Court have been initially appointed to fill a vacancy, but with rare exception all appointees have been confirmed by the voters.

Early 20th Century

In 1907 the legislature established a direct nonpartisan election system for nominating judges, replacing political party conventions. Separate nonpartisan ballots were also authorized for the November general elections, removing judges from the political party lists. Except for a brief return to partisanship in 1912, the names of candidates for the Supreme Court have subsequently appeared on nonpartisan ballots.

Chosen by the other justices of the court for a two-year term, the Chief Justice must be one of those next up for election, and usually is the senior of the three. The Chief Justice presides at all court sessions, handles administrative responsibilities, chairs the state judicial conference and represents the court and judicial system in many public appearances.

Notable firsts

External links



Unopposed  Judge Mary Yu (Position 1)
Unopposed  Judge Mary Fairhurst (Position 3)
Position 4
CandidateIncumbencyPrimary VoteElection Vote
JohnsonCharles W. Johnson Yes   
YoonEddie Yoon No   
Position 7
CandidateIncumbencyPrimary VoteElection Vote
ScannellJohn Scannell No   
StephensDebra Stephens Yes   


CandidateIncumbencyOfficePrimary VoteElection Vote
HilyerBruce Hilyer    NoPosition 925.6% 
DanielsonBruce O. Danielson    NoPosition 843.1% 
McQuaidDouglas W. McQuaid    NoPosition 224.14% 
LadenburgJohn Ladenburg    NoPosition 915.31% 
SandersRichard Sanders    NoPosition 927.48%ApprovedA44.76%   DefeatedD
StafneScott Stafne    NoPosition 212.36% 
McCloudSheryl McCloud   ApprovedANoPosition 931.61%ApprovedA55.24%   ApprovedA
GonzalezSteven Gonzalez   ApprovedAYesPosition 856.9%ApprovedA100%   ApprovedA
OwensSusan Owens   ApprovedAYesPosition 263.5%ApprovedA100%   ApprovedA


See also: 2010 State Supreme Court elections

Incumbent Richard Sanders was defeated by challenger Charlie Wiggins.

Washington State Supreme Court
2010 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Charlie Wiggins BallotCheckMark.png n/a 50.34%
Richard Sanders n/a n/a

Incumbent James Johnson ran uncontested and was re-elected.

Washington State Supreme Court
2010 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
James Johnson BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a

Incumbent Barbara Madsen ran uncontested and was re-elected.

Washington State Supreme Court
2010 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Barbara Madsen BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a


See also: State Supreme Court elections, 2008

Incumbent Debra Stephens ran uncontested and was re-elected.

Washington State Supreme Court
2008 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Debra Stephens BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a

Incumbent Charles Johnson competed against James Beecher and Frank Vulliet and was re-elected.

Washington State Supreme Court
2008 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Charles Johnson BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a
James Beecher n/a n/a
Frank Vulliet n/a n/a

Incumbent Mary Fairhurst competed against Michael Bond and was re-elected.

Washington State Supreme Court
2008 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Mary Fairhurst BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a
Michael Bond n/a n/a

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