The two candidates vying for the Washington Supreme Court Position 3 seat come with extensive judicial experience.
Raquel Montoya-Lewis, who has spent two decades presiding over tribal and state courts, is looking to retain her seat for a full six-year term. Montoya-Lewis made history as the first enrolled Native American tribal member on the court when Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her to the position last year. She filled the seat held by Mary Fairhurst, who stepped away due to health issues. Prior to her appointment, Montoya-Lewis served as a Whatcom County Superior Court judge for five years.
Dave Larson, a judge with Federal Way Municipal Court since 2008, also is seeking the seat. Larson’s 35 years of legal experience also includes working as a trial attorney in various sized firms. Larson said he entered the race in hopes of bringing leadership that would address the challenges of the state’s court system, including increased support for lower trial courts.
As of Sunday, Montoya-Lewis’ campaign has $164,361.64 in contributions compared to $31,526.32 for Larson’s campaign, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The Washington Supreme Court has ruled on high-profile topics including farmworker pay, water rights, tribal law and public education funding over the past few years.
According to data from the Washington Citizens Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials, the annual salary of a Washington Supreme Court Justice is $223,499 as of July 1.
Montoya-Lewis and Larson answered several questions asked by the Yakima Herald-Republic. They have been edited for clarity and space.
Why are you qualified to serve as a Washington Supreme Court justice?
Montoya-Lewis: I think it’s important that we have people with a wide range of experience as a judge on the Supreme Court. My 20 years as a judge has included sitting on felony criminal jury trials of all kinds. I’ve had the minor felonies, such as third-degree shoplifting charges, all the way to presiding over murder trials. That wide range of experience helps to inform my analysis of criminal cases.
I’ve also been a professor. I was a tenured professor at Western Washington University for 12 years. My experience as a researcher, educator and writer qualify me to be on a court that analyzes and develops the law of the state of Washington. It’s my intention when authoring opinions to write clearly in a way the people the cases are affecting can understand.
I’ve been on the court for nine months. I have written four opinions that have been published. I have the experience of sitting on oral argument cases; I’ve heard about 35 cases. That also qualifies me to continue in this position.
Larson: I’ve been in just about every aspect of the justice system. I’ve been an associate for a law firm; I’ve tried civil cases. I’ve been a trial judge, nearly 100% over criminal cases. I tried cases in state and federal courts.
I’ve handled traffic and misdemeanors as a municipal court judge. I’ve managed courts. I’ve been managing a court for 11 years. I came in the middle of a mess of a court in 2008. I replaced someone who resigned. The court was in the newspaper every other week for something. I turned that court around.
If you don’t have the breadth of experience, your opinions will be affected. The Supreme Court creates court rules and is the boss of the courts. If you don’t understand what it’s like to have boots on the ground, you can make rules, processes and procedures that don’t work in the lower courts.
All those experiences — owning my law firm, working for a large law firm, serving as a judge — gave me the tools you need as a Supreme Court Justice.
You are the first Native American to serve as a Washington Supreme Court Justice. What difference do you feel it makes to have Native American representation on the state’s highest court?
Montoya-Lewis: I think that it is meaningful to have the composition of the Supreme Court reflect the state that it serves. Having a Native voice at that table matters in that sense. The Supreme Court makes all kinds of decisions that affect the Native community. Having my voice both as a tribal member and someone who has been a tribal court judge for Northwest tribes supports the work that we do and lends credibility to the institution.
In addition to that, I’ve just been amazed the impact that my appointment has had not only on Native youth, but youth of color and law students of color who have told me in multiple settings that just seeing that it’s possible (to have a Native American on the Washington Supreme Court) has opened a world of possibilities for them.
You are facing a candidate who adds to the racial and ethnic diversity of the court. What do you feel you would add to the body of the Washington Supreme Court?
Larson: Diversity is certainly something that gave me great pause when I decided to run. You can be concerned about the diversity of race on the bench — that’s a legitimate thing to talk about. But I don’t think there isn’t any impact on the people of color who go through the courts. There isn’t the leadership to bring us together in uniform ways to address some of these issues, especially for those going through the courts for the first time.
We can talk about access to justice. We’ve got to walk the talk, and we aren’t doing that. For example, divorces are horrible for people, and they’re expensive. The Limited License Legal Technician Program provided people to help people fill out divorce documents. The choice without that program is that someone pays a lot of money for a lawyer. The Washington Supreme Court phased out the program with no public hearing, no notice.
I want to have the court system walk the talk when it comes to access to justice. We don’t need a system that is too expensive, too complicated, and that’s why I’m passionate about making the system work for the people we’re supposed to serve.
(Note: The Washington Supreme Court voted 7-2 in June to sunset the program. During an editorial board meeting with the Yakima Herald-Republic on Monday, Montoya-Lewis defended her vote, stating that the program did not work as intended to provide citizens with better access to legal aid, and technicians struggled to make a living. Montoya-Lewis noted that the issue was up for discussion during the Limited License Legal Technician board meeting a few weeks prior to the June vote.)
Chief Justice Debra Stephens is the only judge from Eastern Washington. What is your familiarity with Eastern Washington, and what will you do to ensure you are well-informed when cases from Eastern Washington emerge in the court?
Montoya-Lewis: That’s an important question. I will start with my work in Whatcom County. I think what happens there is like what happens east of the mountains. Whatcom County has a very rural community; it’s a farming community in many respects. Those are similarities.
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with both the Yakama Nation and Spokane Tribe. I certainly know many of the judges who serve in Yakima on the Superior Court and the Spokane area. I visited Spokane prior to the COVID shutdown and familiarized myself with the community and the remarkable innovations they have around domestic violence and children.
It was inspiring to see in Yakima County, a community that doesn’t have a ton of economic support, doing all kinds of innovative programs. When I was serving on Whatcom County Superior Court, we were figuring out a way to address our jail population. Yakima County Superior Court has been a leader in the state around reducing the jail population by innovating around a pretrial release. We sent a court commissioner down there to talk to the judges and see how they were doing it. The court in Yakima certainly was an inspiration for reforms we did in Whatcom County.
Larson: It shouldn’t matter where you are from as a judge or justice. The law should be equally applied across the county. That said, in 2015, I helped save the Granger Municipal Court from termination. I tried to help keep the Toppenish Municipal Court from termination. When they terminated that court and cases went to Sunnyside, I addressed city officials voicing concern about their decision not to increased staffing and that they were already understaffed. I cared about the people they serve in those communities — it’s 85% Hispanic, and the poverty rate is high. They don’t have a voice.
What also comes to mind is the Hirst decision (regarding water resources and the use of wells); that case was erroneously decided in 2016. Whether there was an agenda or not, the court’s misunderstanding at the time and what they did with it had a significant impact on people. If you don’t have a sense of rural life, you can make those kinds of mistakes.
Before the election, I will have visited every Eastern Washington county to see and talk to the people there. I care about everybody in the state.
Earlier this year, the State Supreme Court vacated a 1916 ruling that charged a Yakama citizen with illegally fishing that included racist language and disparaged Native American sovereignty. What were your thoughts on the ruling, and what work does the Washington Supreme Court still need to do in dismantling bias and institutional racism in the judicial system?
Montoya-Lewis: The case was a real opportunity for the court to do what we have said we would do as a collective body. What we want to do is to recognize the history of racism in the state of Washington and the courts’ participation in that. That case is an excellent example of a decision being made with completely flawed assumptions regarding Native people and a total misunderstanding of the law applied in that case. I was proud to write that decision and deliver it from the bench, which isn’t done commonly.
It gave us an opportunity to really speak with authority and speak very clearly on our repudiation of that history.
Implicit bias in the court has been a part of my work for 20 years. I’ve trained judges around the country and am a nationally recognized expert in implicit bias. One part of the answer is in helping judges think through their biases and how they impact the decisions they make.
As for the Supreme Court, because we are in charge of the administration of all the court systems in the state of Washington, it falls to us to not just talk about systemic problems but to address them. That’s where my work and experience in that area will benefit those decisions and what I hope will be the changes we’ll see over time.
If you are elected as a Washington Supreme Court justice, how will you address structural racism and implicit bias in the court system?
Larson: I’ll give you an example of the approach I take. We have a problem across the state with people of color appearing for jury service. There was a survey that revealed that problem. The state system wanted to collect statistics and talk about it. I went out and I partnered with our city diversity commission. We wrote op-eds and went to cultural fairs. We spoke to people about jury service and reached out to people.
There needs to be outreach. There is a trust and confidence issue with the courts by the people. And it’s justified. We aggravate and reinforce racism in our system. If you go into the criminal system and you’re treated with hostility, like us vs. them, and it’s about punishment and retribution, that reinforces the notion you’re disfavored in your community.
But how about if someone’s there for the first time and they come into a system that looks at the underlying reasons and causes and the reasons you’re doing for what you’re doing, and they plug you into things that can help you avoid criminal conduct? We’re doing in it our therapeutic courts, our drug courts, but those are designed to get people out of control.
The system, from start to finish, has to focus on the therapeutic method. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the punitive method. That method should be reserved for those who refuse to engage and continue to engage in conduct and refuse to change.
Right now, we’re failing a lot of people, including people of color, because we don’t have that intentional way to enrich them and get them back on track.
The other part is we have a leadership vacuum on this issue. The Supreme Court adopts rules, approves rules and sets the tone. We have a minority justice commission. There are a lot of task forces and a lot of studies. Nothing ends up getting done. It’s a dynamic that has to be recognized.
All the different judicial factions have a lobbyist. The Washington Supreme Court’s role should be to bring groups together to a common purpose to help the system. If we put the people we serve first, then everything else comes into focus. We’ll realize what’s gone wrong how we can improve things.