As the election looms in the near future, I have become acutely aware of the need to judicial diversity. Before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was unaware that all nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices were educated at either Harvard or Yale. In my opinion, more diversity—in ethnicity, gender, race, religion sexual orientation, and even law school background—is always better than less. While these attributes might not affect the quality of legal reasoning, complex legal decisions require broad perspectives.
Amongst America’s “Article III” courts, which include its top court, nearly 100 federal courts and more than a dozen federal appeals courts, judges who are female, persons of color, or self-identify as LGBTQ are significantly underrepresented. Only 30% of active judges are women. And while 40% of the U.S. population identify as people of color, the Center for American Progress notes merely 20% of sitting judges in the nation’s federal courts are people of color. At the appellate court level, merely 17% of sitting circuit court judges are people of color.
In contrast to our federal courts, the judges who serve on the Washington State Supreme Court are elected by the people unless a vacancy occurs mid-term. Earlier this year, when Justices Mary Fairhurst and Charlie Wiggins retired, Governor Inslee appointed two female superior court judges to replace them: Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis and Justice Grace Helen Whitener. Both are up for re-election.
Unfortunately, voters, do not spend enough time contemplating judicial elections. A Survey on 1,070 Washington State voters done by the Northwest Progressive Institute last May found that 81% were undecided for the Position #6 race (Whitener vs. Serns) and 78% for the race in Position #3 (Montoya-Lewis vs. Larson).
I hope more knowledge is power.
Justice Montoya-Lewis is the first Native American on our State Supreme Court and only the second in the nation. During nearly 5 years as a Whatcom County Superior Court Judge, she acquired broad experience in felony criminal cases, family law matters, child welfare, and bench trials on civil matters. Prior to that, her career traversed academic and judicial areas. She served as an Associate Professor of Law at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University as well as Chief Judge for the Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Indian Tribe and the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. She presents nationally on topics such as implicit bias, cultural identity, engaging families and youth in dependency and juvenile court, Indian Child Welfare compliance and tribal trial and appellate court practice.
Montoya-Lewis’ challenger is Dave Larson, a conservative leaning Municipal Court judge in Federal way. After finishing his legal education in 1980, his career has been mostly as a mediator and arbitrator. During his tenure as a Board member of the Federal Way School district, he proposed a moratorium on showing high schoolers Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, a global warming documentary, after a parent complained that it ignored creationism. He has run unsuccessfully for the State Supreme Court a number of times since 2002. Identified in 2016 as a “climate change denier,” he was heartily endorsed by Bill Gates, reportedly because he supported charter schools, entities ruled unconstitutional in Washington State.
In Position 6, Justice Grace Helen Whitener faces opponent Richard Serns, a rather unconventional candidate for the Washington State Supreme Court. Whitener is the first Black woman to serve as a Justice on the Washington Supreme Court. Whitener was born in Trinidad and moved to the US at 16. She is also the first openly Black LGBT judge in the State of Washington. Following graduation from Seattle University Law school, Whitener worked as a public defender, prosecutor, and private defense attorney. She is well recognized throughout the legal community for her commitment to justice and equity. She is co-chair of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission. Justice Whitener is the recipient of many awards and accolades for her work, including the Seattle University School of Law Woman of the Year Award.
Opponent Richard Serns is a bit of a dark horse in this race. In 1999, after working 20years as a teacher and principal, Serns graduated from the University of Washington School of Law. He failed the bar exam on his first attempt, so he returned to working with school districts, ultimately becoming an assistant superintendent and superintendent.
Following his retirement and nearly 21 years after law school graduation, Serns decided to try and pass the bar again. He spent 40 to 60 hours per week studying for three and a half months and passed on his second attempt this past February. Serns was sworn in at the Lewis County Court House on April 13, 2020, and received his license to practice law only six months ago. He credits his family and his faith for carrying him through.
Serns told the Willapa Harbor Herald last April that he had no plans to reenter the workforce full-time. His law school focus was in alternative dispute resolution. At that time, he hinted at pursuing legal endeavors involving mediation and facilitation, but did not mention the prospect of running for a Supreme Court position. In reality, Justice Whitener’s opponent has no judicial experience. He has never been at trial and quite possibly has never had a client.
While the US Senate grapples with Amy Coney Barretts’ confirmation hearings this week, voters would do well to turn their attention where their impact could be greatest. Our local judiciary rules on far more matters of importance to our daily lives. And for those of us mourning the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there is no better way to pay tribute to her legacy than by evaluating the qualifications of the Washington Supreme Court judicial candidates and exercising our right to vote.