Three of Benton County Superior Court’s six judges have recused themselves in the state’s closely watched case against a Tri-Cities florist who declined on religious grounds to supply flowers for a gay couple’s wedding.
And the attorney for Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, said he will ask a fourth judge to also withdraw because he served as a college trustee alongside one of the gay men.
That judge, Salvador Mendoza, is scheduled to hear motions in the case this afternoon.
The attorney, JD Bristol, of Snohomish, said Thursday he will file an affidavit to remove Mendoza if the judge doesn’t remove himself.
Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Mendoza in April to fill a vacancy on the bench.
“It creates a real or the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Bristol said.
In April, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a discrimination lawsuit against Stutzman under the state’s Consumer Protection Act after she told longtime customer Robert Ingersoll she couldn’t provide flowers for his September wedding with partner Curt Freed because of her relationship with Jesus Christ.
The ACLU of Washington also filed a private lawsuit against the Richland florist on the men’s behalf.
The cases are being closely watched statewide, as well as nationally, not only by gay-marriage supporters and opponents but also by legal scholars intrigued by the complex legal issues it raises.
It appears to be the first case of discrimination of any kind the state’s Attorney General’s Office has brought on its own.
Among a flurry of last-minute filings in the case is a motion by attorneys for the florist to consolidate the two cases.
The ACLU said that while it doesn’t object to consolidation for pretrial purposes, there are key differences in the cases that would make consolidation for trial impractical: their private suit has a right to a jury, while the state’s does not.
Today’s hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
In a letter to Mendoza asking him to recuse himself, attorneys for the florist noted that Mendoza and Freed served together as trustees for Columbia Basin College.
Freed is vice president of instruction at Columbia Basin and it’s unclear if he ever served as a trustee. Calls to the college seeking clarification were not returned.
Three other judges on the six-member bench — Bruce Spanner, Vic VanderSchoor and Carrie Runge — have recused themselves, an action judges aren’t obligated to explain.
According to Bristol’s letter to Mendoza, Spanner pulled out because he was in the local Rotary Club with Stutzman. And Runge, who was initially scheduled to hear the case today, recused herself after Bristol filed an affidavit of prejudice against her, citing what he said was her lack of experience in complicated civil cases.
The two other judges have a scheduling conflict, according to Pat Austin, court administrator.
“We just want a fair hearing; we don’t want to have the case heard by someone predisposed one way or another,” Bristol said.
Austin said it’s not unusual in a town so small — and especially in high-profile cases — for judges to recuse themselves because of relationships with individuals on either side.
“Some of them have personal connections, maybe they’ve done business with the entity or may know them personally,” Austin said.
In fact, there have been instances where all six judges have done so, she said. When no local judge is available to hear a case, a visiting judge is brought in.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com.
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