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Picking Supreme Court justices isn't easy, given their near invisibility, the relative unavailability and frequent inpenetrability of their opinions, and the rules prohibiting them from

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How to Say Nothing Ethically: A Look at the Supreme Court Candidates and Their Websites

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Picking Supreme Court justices isn't easy, given their near invisibility, the relative unavailability and frequent inpenetrability of their opinions, and the rules prohibiting them from indicating how they might rule. Newspapers and professional associations offer endorsements and ratings of qualification, but it's hard to reach that Reading Rainbow level of access, where you don't have to take their word for it.

In the spirit of RR, I've gone through the candidates websites and done my best to summarize what the candidates tell us about themselves. For more on what others say about them, go to the highly informative www.votingforjudges.org.

Position Three

Mary Fairhurst

The well-funded incumbent reveals little in the way of judicial philosophy on her website, boasting instead of her extra-judicial work on criminal justice issues and her many endorsements and high qualification ratings. A browse though the Events Calendar—one of the site’s few features—reveals that, on August 13th, Christine Gregoire invited you to join her and Justice Fairhurst to celebrate the latter’s birthday with champagne and cake at the law offices of Ditlevson Rogers Dixon. (This is why judicial elections are important—they keep the positions from being filled through backroom deals made by society’s most powerful.)

For voters familiar with case citations (and really, who doesn’t surf Findlaw for fun?), Fairhurst provides a pdf listing all of her authored opinions; it’s worth reading through those involving government agencies to see if you agree with the Seattle Times (the only major paper to endorse her opponent, Michael Bond) that, as a fomer, long-serving government lawyer, Fairhurst unfairly favors government agencies. Also worth a read is her cogent dissent in Andersen v. King County (pdf), the case in which the Supreme Court upheld the state’s Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits gay marriage.

Michael Bond

With a surname that invokes a license to kill and no reservations about referring to himself in the third person, Bond is by far the most aggressive campaigner of the would-be Supremes. He repeatedly attacks the opinions of his opponent, Mary Fairhurst, noting her propensity to side against public disclosure requests and striking a populist, libertarian tone by asserting that “the most important role of the courts is to protect the people from the power of the government and vested interests.” That stance has become more appealing in our era of expanded government surveillance powers. But while many Seattleites may like what libertarianism means for wiretapping and gay marriage, they may not like what it means for, say, gun control or land use regulation. (Rumors of BIAW support for Bond's campaign are, however, unfounded.)

In the comments section of his blog, the normally responsive Bond fails to answer questions that might pit his professed libertarian ideals of privacy and governmental non-interference against traditionally conservative positions on issues like abortion and gay marriage. He's also fond of the old "judge, don't legislate" canard that's usually less an expression of judicial restraint than of rightist leanings, and that degrades discourse on legal matters by trivializing the complexity of the cases the Court hears. Finally, his young daughter fears that goths will eat her.

Position Four

Charles Johnson

The only candidate with a mustache, Johnson boasts eighteen years on the court, earning him the nickname “Barely Legal”. Like Fairhurst, he’s been endorsed by pretty much everybody and has raised more money than his opponents could presumably dream of (neither of them even filed finance reports). Also, like Fairhurst, he gives no indication of his judicial philosophy, though he does point to a number of altruistic activities that seem to indicate that he’s a good guy. No matter—his web-savvy opponents are...

C.F. “Frank” Vulliet

Vulliet scores points for his openness, creative use of grammar, and awkward grasp of the Internet. He's currently working on a book, the title of which contains an ellipses and two colons. And check out the jargon and semi-colon use in the following: “My site is different from other campaign web-sites. To make sure you get information you want; and not just what I’d like you to have, I provide a direct e-mail connection to receive your questions or comments.”

Further information can be found in the Q&A section, which lacks a menu, thus requiring you to click through four pages of long answers to figure out which questions even interest you. Similarly, he explains his decision not to sign the Washington Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns’ pledge in a heavily-annotated, single-spaced, seven-page letter that could really use an executive summary.

Vuillet’s decision not to sign the pledge seems, like much of his campaign, principled, genuine, and entirely quixotic. (He notes that having one’s name associated with an ethics issue in any negative way will create an irreparably negative impression on the public; for that reason, among others, he refuses to sign the ethics pledge.) His writings indicate a leftward bent, but his proposals center on making the judiciary more transparent and efficient, thus enabling better monitoring and more informed voting by the public. One wonders whether he could muster the money and political wherewithal to implement the extensive information systems he proposes, but one doubts he'll even have the opportunity to try.

James M. Beecher

Beecher advocates streamlining the judicial system for greater efficiency, but more importantly, he boasts my favorite website of the candidates. Featuring large, red and blue text arranged in what might best be described as improvisational outline form, quotations from canonical figures of literature and philosophy, an occasional aversion to puncuation ("Good Better Best"), the use of brackets rather than parentheses, and non-sequitur nature shots adorning the tops of many pages, it perhaps best resembles a middle-aged, autodidact dilettante's mid-1990s personal Geocities page.

Position Seven

Debra Stephens

Stephens website informs us that she is the first woman from Eastern Washington to serve on the court and that she is "refreshingly real". (Emphasis hers.) Regardless, she has led a charmed judicial life; this is the second time she's been appointed to an appellate position and then run for re-election unopposed. With no one to beat and ethics pledges to conform to, her website is, well, dull. What did you expect?

 
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