by George Howland Jr.

Chief Justice Gerry ("Gary") Alexander

When I interviewed Alexander, he had just been informed how much damage the court's unanimous decision to toss out the state's inheritance tax had cost the state budget. "We knocked over $400 million today -- not bad for a day's work," he quipped.

Alexander's sense of humor and lively optimism shine brightly. He has been a judge since 1973, joined the state Supremes in 1995, and became chief Justice in 2001. His personal and judicial skills make him a perfect fit for the job of chief justice, who must mediate among the personalities and philosophies of the court. His interest in rhetoric goes back to the elementary school playground where he learned to avoid getting punched out at recess through reason. He is an enthusiastic believer that the state Constitution provides greater liberty than the U.S. Constitution. Two studies in law journals of the state Supreme Court found him to be very protective of due process and the rights of criminal defendants. Since he supports a broad reading of the state Constitution's liberties, gay-rights supporters hope he will favor same-sex marriage. Others believe his cultural bias -- small town, mainstream America -- would incline him against it.

Justice Bobbe Bridge

Bridge is widely respected for her legal smarts, yet unfortunately known best among the general public for her arrest for drunken driving in 2003 (she agreed to alcoholism treatment in exchange for a deferred prosecution). Then-Gov. Gary Locke appointed her to the high court in 1999 after she'd spent nine years on the King County Superior Court. Her sharp mind shines through in an interview and in the penetrating questions she fires down from the bench. On account of her background in Democratic Party and feminist circles before becoming a judge, many view her as culturally inclined to support gay marriage. She rejects the notion that any of the court's decisions flow from personal feeling.

"The belief that we have a gut reaction and find a law to fit it is not true," she states emphatically.

Justice Tom Chambers

After our interview, Chambers was looking forward to a fast motorcycle ride; 20 years ago, it would have been a dirt-bike race. Before being elected to the court in 2000, Chambers rose from humble beginnings in Wapato to become one of the state's most successful trial attorneys, winning high-profile cases against insurance companies on behalf on people who had been injured. His carping about the isolation from his lawyer friends that has resulted since he's become a judge has led to rumors that he will not seek reelection. He told me, however, that he loves being on the court and will run again, but wishes his old friends could relax around him more. He admits that his votes have unsurprisingly been in favor of plaintiffs in personal injury cases and that he's a swing vote in criminal matters.

"If it is a core constitutional right, I'm there to protect it, but if I see it as a hyper-technicality then I'm not there," he says. Gay marriage supporters are optimistic he'll support them.

Justice Mary Fairhurst

During her successful election campaign of 2002, Fairhurst demonstrated a remarkable ability to put a lot of words together without saying much of anything at all. Even since then, her votes and opinions on the court have not given anyone much more of a clue about her legal outlook. On the bench, however, she asks questions just as insightful as those of her colleagues. Before joining the court, Fairhurst worked for the Attorney General's office for 16 years, first under Republican Ken Eikenberry and then under Democrat Christine Gregoire, rising to Division Chief of the Revenue, Bankruptcy and Collections Division. There's no clue where's she's going on same-sex marriage or anything else.

Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson

Nobody expected Charles Johnson to be elected to the court in 1991. He was an unknown sole practitioner representing working stiffs in Gig Harbor running against the sitting Chief Justice, Keith Callow. He did win, however, and has won reelection twice since, becoming a respected advocate for the uniqueness of the state Constitution and its extensive liberties. He teaches constitutional law at Seattle University and was fiercely opposed by many of the state's prosecutors during his 2002 reelection campaign. During interviews, his patience, humor and reverence for the law reveal themselves quickly. Nobody seems able to predict where he'll come down on same-sex marriage.

Justice Jim Johnson

Just elected in November 2004, Johnson is best known in political circles for the legal company he has kept over the years: as chief legal Indian fighter in Slade Gorton's attorney general's office, as initiative king Tim Eyman's lawyer and for representing the anti-environment warriors of the Building Industry Association of Washington. He admits to being a libertarian but says any idea that he'll be a conservative activist on the bench is a lot of hooey. He is passionate about the rights and liberties of the state Constitution -- believing the courts have let some of the state's founding document, particularly the clauses on initiative, referendum and recall, lie too fallow. He is friends with the court's other colorful libertarian, Richard Sanders, and says both share a philosophy that the interpretation of the Constitution should not stray too far from what the document actually says. For this reason, he's not considered a likely same-sex marriage vote.

Justice Barbara Madsen

In 1991, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Madsen watched in horror and disbelief as an all-male U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee treated Anita Hill's account of sexual harassment at the hands of then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with little respect. Madsen resolved to run for state Supreme Court in response and joined in the Year of the Woman to be elected in November 1992. Since then, she has distinguished herself as a justice who guards the rights of criminal defendants with extreme zeal and regards the claims of civil plaintiffs with lots of skepticism -- it's an unusual combination, and one that has earned her the enmity of both prosecutors and some trial attorneys. She, like many of the justices, wishes people would understand the difference between their personal points of view and their job interpreting law. She gets a lot of e-mail that misses that distinction. There is no consensus about how she'll rule on gay marriage.

Justice Susan Owens

In 2000, when Owens ran for the Supremes, she was a tribal court and district court judge from Forks. Her rural residence and folksy charm made it easy to underestimate this graduate of Duke University. She bested several better-known attorneys and judges to win a spot on the high court. Since then, court watchers haven't really gotten a strong sense about her, although members of the criminal bar think she favors the prosecution in close cases. She says during her first year on the bench, she was walking on a cloud. Since then, the nasty e-mails from citizens angry over controversial decisions and the unending box loads of briefs have brought her back to earth. Still, she loves the position and is dedicated to the legal process. When people are asked to predict where she'll come down on gay marriage, there's a whole lot of silence.

Justice Richard Sanders

One observer says Sanders has a "permanent schizophrenia" between his social conservatism grounded in Catholicism and his legal libertarianism. Sanders says both exist but are not in conflict, since the former orders his personal life and the latter determines his jurisprudence. Sanders is the darling of the state's defense bar and the bane of the prosecutors. He is highly protective of defendants' rights in criminal cases, freedom of the press, religious liberty and property rights. He won a high-profile struggle for his own freedom of speech after briefly speaking at a Right to Life rally in 1997. Currently he is fighting charges that he violated judicial ethics by speaking with sex offenders. He summarizes part of his judicial philosophy by saying, "Words have fixed meanings." That's why he's thought by most to be unlikely to say that marriage can be anything other than a relationship between a man and a woman.

Publication date: 03/10/05

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