Judging Jeanette

The "skirts" judge is back.

The "skirts" judge is back, and Joe Coleman has got her.

Jeanette Burrage is best known for her threat to sanction women lawyers who didn't wear skirts in her courtroom, but that wasn't the only complaint about her performance as a King County Superior Court judge. After being narrowly defeated two years ago, she's now running for the second highest court in the state—the Washington Court of Appeals, Division 1, Position 5. Her opponent, Judge H. Joseph Coleman, has been a judge for 26 years, including 18 on the Court of Appeals. While most consider Burrage's legal qualifications to be miniscule, especially when compared to Coleman's, she is regarded as a potent political force, someone who has defeated better-funded, more-qualified supporters in the past. Coleman is not taking the race lightly: "She has name familiarity. I think she is formidable."

Burrage might still be in office if not for the "skirts" issue. In the fall of 1999, Burrage was shocked that some women attorneys in her court wore pantsuits—something she says she had never seen before. She told them the next time they appeared before her they should wear skirts. She recalls one of the attorneys asking, "If we don't do it, are you going to sanction us?" Burrage remembers replying, "I guess I might." The issue hit the press and caused a cultural tsunami. In the meantime, she had e-mailed the other 49 Superior Court judges and asked them about their dress policy. They informed her that they did not require skirts, so she withdrew her threat. Burrage was voted out of office in November 2000 (Seattle Weekly reluctantly endorsed her).

Coleman's foremost concern when it comes to Burrage isn't the skirts. He says, "She doesn't have the substantive knowledge or background to" serve on the Court of Appeals. He cites three major concerns: her ratings by the King County Bar Association (KCBA), the refusal of many attorneys to try cases before her in Superior Court, and the poor evaluations she received from lawyers who did appear before her.

This year, the KCBA rated Burrage (for the fifth time) as "Not Qualified." Coleman received the association's highest rating, "Exceptionally Well Qualified."

Burrage says the ratings are "political." She contends that the "elite group" who run the bar perceive her as a "property-rights nut" because she worked for the Northwest Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that "protects individual property rights." The bar "thinks I go for the property owner no matter what, but I don't. I decide cases on the law."

Coleman says the bar committee "is broad-based and inquires into a number of areas—legal skills, judicial demeanor—and they check your references thoroughly." His perception is backed up by the overwhelming majority of judicial candidates and judges who do participate in the bar's rating process.

While Burrage served as judge, an unusual number of attorneys opted out of her courtroom. Refusing to appear before a judge by employing an "affidavit of prejudice" is the ultimate insult and not done lightly. According the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in the first four months of 1996, lawyers chose not to appear in front of Burrage 87 times, five times more than any other Superior Court judge. At the end of her term, from January 1998 through July 20, 2000, the affidavits had slowed to 20 but still accounted for one third of all affidavits for all 50 Superior Court judges, according to Moxie Media, political consultants to her 2000 opponent, Laura Gene Middaugh.

Burrage says the affidavits were the result of prejudice created by the bar's poor rating. As she served on the bench, the affidavits declined because "attorneys weren't as stirred up." She also claims one attorney is responsible for several of them.

The bar also does an anonymous survey about judges several months before their re-election. In December 1999, Burrage was rated less than satisfactory by 50 percent of the lawyers who responded.

She points out that half of the attorneys rated her as satisfactory or better. She says, "I have a good record as judge" and cites as evidence that out of 30 cases she decided that were appealed, only six were overturned. This "shows I do make good legal decisions," she argues.

Does Burrage have a reason for opposing Coleman? "I am not running against him because he has made bad legal decisions." Rather, she heard a rumor earlier this year that he was retiring, so she is concerned he will not serve out his term.

Coleman, 61, says he will.

Before becoming a judge, Coleman was the in-house lawyer for the Seattle Police Department. He won his first election to the Superior Court in 1975 running on a law-and-order platform and was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 1984. He has been endorsed by eight out of nine of the state's Supreme Court justices and 40 out of 50 Superior Court judges, many of whom served with Burrage, while Burrage has yet to receive a single endorsement from the legal community. So why is Coleman campaigning so hard?

Everyone agrees Burrage has terrific name familiarity. This position is voted on solely by King County, and Burrage has won elections in the county as a state legislator, a member of the Des Moines City Council, and twice as a Superior Court judge. She has been on the ballot other times when she sought election to the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, and the King County Assessor's Office.

Coleman was last on the ballot six years ago and has not had a challenger since 1994.

Burrage is up front about her reliance on this advantage. "I did go into that analysis before I decided to run for office," she says. "I hope that some of that comes into play."

Coleman says, "It's a political decision. She has no legitimate, principled reason for running." He hopes voters will inform themselves on the issue and ask themselves, "Is this the kind of job Jeanette Burrage would do well?"

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

SW PICKS

WASHINGTON STATE COURT OF APPEALS, DIVISION ONE, POSITION 5.

Judge H. Joseph Coleman is the only qualified person in this race.

His primary opponent, Jeanette Burrage, did a poor job on the King County Superior Court, so no one should entertain the notion for a second of promoting her to higher office.

Over the last 26 years as a judge, Coleman has earned the respect of many of his colleagues, as evidenced by his huge endorsement list. He will no doubt go on to serve the public well for the next six years.

WASHINGTON STATE SUPREME COURT, POSITION 4

Voters should send Justice Charles W. Johnson back to the Supreme Court for a third term.

He has two opponents, neither of whom should be entrusted with guarding the state constitution. Pamela Loginsky is a fiery prosecutor bent on revenge because Johnson disagreed with her on some arcane interpretation of a new law. Vengeance is a poor basis on which to seek a position on the state's highest court. Doug Schafer is using the campaign to carry on his protest over his treatment by the bar when he broke attorney-client privilege to finger a corrupt judge. Schafer's fight over ethics is worth paying attention to, but it has nothing to do with a Supreme Court election.

Johnson first won election to the Supreme Court in an upset victory in 1991. Since then he has been a very competent justice who draws support from across the political and legal spectrum. He has done so by not inserting his personal views and by carefully studying the constitutional principles that have evolved over the 113-year history of law in this state. We recommend Johnson for his mix of impartiality, fairness, and intellect.

KING COUNTY DISTRICT COURT, POSITION 3

Art Chapman has distinguished himself from the pack by his willingness to innovate.

His two worthy opponents, Susan Noonan and Ron Mattson, just can't compete. Mattson's temperament seems better suited to the role of an advocate than that of judge. Noonan fails to present a compelling case for why we should put her on the court.

Chapman has served as a Seattle Municipal Court judge since October 2000. Since that court is contracting in size, he has graciously decided to seek an open seat on the King County District Court. On the muni court bench, Chapman has run the innovative mental health court that brings together criminal justice, social services, and psychiatry to address the problems of mentally ill people accused of breaking the law. In addition, he is passionate about the need to reform the war on drugs, recognizing that treatment options for the drug addicted are far more cost-effective and just than incarceration.

Seattle Weekly Editorial Board

politics@seattleweekly.com

 
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