Justice Steve Gonzalez asks a question during the McCleary case (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)
Justice Steve Gonzalez asks a question during the McCleary case (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

This Novem­ber, vot­ers here in Wash­ing­ton and in oth­er states will be decid­ing more than just who they send to the 116th Con­gress and the next gath­er­ing of their state’s Leg­is­la­ture. They’ll also be deter­min­ing who sits on the bench in a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent courts, from State Supreme Court to Dis­trict and Munic­i­pal Court.

Unlike at the fed­er­al lev­el, judges pre­sid­ing over state and local courts don’t get on the bench exclu­sive­ly by appoint­ment and con­fir­ma­tion. Rather, they are elect­ed by vot­ers on the same bal­lots that exec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive can­di­dates appear on.

While long­time vot­ers are well aware that state and local judi­cial posi­tions are sub­ject to elec­tion, many new vot­ers don’t know any­thing about vot­ing for judges. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, judi­cial con­tests often receive very lit­tle media cov­er­age. That makes cast­ing a vote for these posi­tions more dif­fi­cult than it should be.

This year in Wash­ing­ton, there are three Supreme Court posi­tions sub­ject to elec­tion. Although there were orig­i­nal­ly two can­di­dates for each posi­tion — an incum­bent and a chal­lenger — two of the chal­lengers were removed from the bal­lot due to hav­ing been dis­barred, so as a con­se­quence, there is only one posi­tion that is actu­al­ly being con­test­ed. That race, for Posi­tion #8, pits high­ly respect­ed Jus­tice Steve Gon­za­lez against admon­ished attor­ney Nathan Choi.

Choi unsuc­cess­ful­ly sought elec­tion last year to the Court of Appeals (Divi­sion 1, Dis­trict 1 — Judge Posi­tion 2). He was defeat­ed. Choi received 23.73% of the vote, while incum­bent Michael Spear­man received 76.27% of the vote.

This year, Choi has done hard­ly any cam­paign­ing or fundrais­ing, which has led many polit­i­cal observers to per­ceive that Choi sim­ply isn’t a threat to Gonzalez.

The mass media has like­wise paid the race scant atten­tion. Only a hand­ful of arti­cles about the Supreme Court race have been pub­lished since Fil­ing Week.

Jim Cam­den wrote a good sto­ry for the Spokesman-Review back in Sep­tem­ber; his col­league Jonathan Glover wrote a fol­low-up sto­ry a few days lat­er when Choi and Gon­za­lez debat­ed in front of the Spokane Rotary.

Pat Muir filed a report for the Yaki­ma Her­ald-Repub­lic (which was fol­lowed by an endorse­ment from the paper) and three oth­er dailies have pub­lished endorse­ments of the incum­bent jus­tices: The News Tri­bune, The Seat­tle Times, and The Columbian. The Stranger also gave Gon­za­lez a ring­ing endorse­ment.

That’s basi­cal­ly the extent of the media cov­er­age Gon­za­lez has received. A search of broad­cast tele­vi­sion and radio archives by NPI going back six­ty days yield­ed zero — yes, zero — results for either Gon­za­lez’s name or Choi’s name. (By con­trast, there were 2,007 results for Maria Cantwell and 760 results for Susan Hutchison.)

Justice Steve Gonzalez asks a question during the McCleary case (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)
Jus­tice Steve Gon­za­lez asks a ques­tion dur­ing the McCleary case (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

From what we can tell, not a sin­gle sta­tion in either the Seat­tle, Port­land, Spokane, or Yaki­ma/Tri-Cities mar­kets has aired a sto­ry about the con­test for Posi­tion #8, which is a statewide con­test for a six-year term. It would appear that the pro­gram direc­tors work­ing at our North­west sta­tions have con­clud­ed there’s no race to cover.

But our research indi­cates that Gon­za­lez isn’t assured of cruis­ing to reelec­tion in a cake­walk, even though he is the only cred­i­ble can­di­date run­ning. When we polled on the race back in May, fol­low­ing Fil­ing Week, we found Choi six points ahead of Gon­za­lez, with a whop­ping three-fourths of respon­dents not sure.

Here’s the ques­tion we asked, and the responses:

QUESTION: The can­di­dates for the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court Posi­tion #8 this year are Nathan Choi and Steve Gon­za­lez. If the elec­tion was being held today, who would you vote for?


  • Nathan Choi: 16%
  • Steve Gon­za­lez: 10%
  • Not sure: 74%

Our sur­vey of six hun­dred and sev­en­ty-five like­ly 2018 Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers was in the field May 22nd-23rd, 2018. The sur­vey used a blend­ed method­ol­o­gy with auto­mat­ed phone calls to land­lines and online inter­views of cell phone only respon­dents. The poll was con­duct­ed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for NPI, and has a mar­gin of error of +/- 3.8% at the 95% con­fi­dence level.

When this data first came back five months ago, we were sur­prised to see such a high num­ber of respon­dents answer­ing “not sure”. Three out of four respon­dents picked that option. We were also sur­prised to see Choi ahead of Gonzalez.

Only one respon­dent out of ten said they were vot­ing for Gonzalez.

“Not sure” isn’t an option on the gen­er­al elec­tion bal­lot. But that does­n’t mean Gon­za­lez will win. He may be the only cred­i­ble can­di­date and the only can­di­date to have received favor­able rat­ings (or any rat­ings, for that mat­ter) from bar asso­ci­a­tions, but vot­ers won’t see that infor­ma­tion on their bal­lots. With infor­ma­tion about this con­test not wide­ly avail­able, many vot­ers may not be able to dis­tin­guish between the superb, mul­ti­lin­gual jurist and the admon­ished attorney.

NPI finds the lack of cov­er­age this race and oth­er judi­cial races have received to date extreme­ly alarm­ing. That’s why we’ve decid­ed to share this poll data.

We’d like to see more research con­duct­ed before the elec­tion to ascer­tain if vot­ers are famil­iar with the Supreme Court can­di­dates, and if they have a pref­er­ence. We hope the pub­li­ca­tion of this find­ing gal­va­nizes that research.

Nei­ther Gon­za­lez’s name nor Choi’s name were on the Top Two bal­lots vot­ed by the 1,753,545 Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who cast bal­lots back in the sum­mer, so we do not have any data from the qual­i­fy­ing elec­tion Wash­ing­ton holds to com­pare these poll results to. This is because state law pro­vides that a Supreme Court race with few­er than three can­di­dates appears only on the gen­er­al elec­tion ballot.

It was­n’t always this way.

Years ago, state law allowed Supreme Court races to be decid­ed in the Top Two elec­tion. If any can­di­date received a major­i­ty, their opponent(s) were elim­i­nat­ed, and that can­di­date had the gen­er­al elec­tion bal­lot to them­selves. This is what hap­pened in 2012, the last time Gon­za­lez ran. He defeat­ed Bruce O. Daniel­son in the August Top Two and then was unop­posed in the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion.

Although Gon­za­lez’s August 2012 mar­gin of vic­to­ry over Daniel­son was­n’t par­tic­u­lar­ly close, Gon­za­lez did­n’t win a sin­gle coun­ty east of the Cas­cade Moun­tains. He also did­n’t win any of the coun­ties in South­west Washington.

The new sys­tem is with­out a doubt bet­ter than the old sys­tem. Under the pre­vi­ous statute, Supreme Court races were effec­tive­ly being decid­ed in the Top Two as opposed to the gen­er­al elec­tion, when a lot more vot­ers participate.

How­ev­er, a side effect of the new statute is that a jus­tice like Steve Gon­za­lez does­n’t have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to build name recog­ni­tion in the Top Two like a leg­isla­tive can­di­date would. In Wash­ing­ton, leg­isla­tive can­di­dates appear on the Top Two bal­lot regard­less of how much com­pe­ti­tion they have. They could be unop­posed, or have only one chal­lenger; it does­n’t mat­ter. Their names will still appear.

Incum­ben­cy is ordi­nar­i­ly a major elec­toral advan­tage, espe­cial­ly for a statewide posi­tion. But since jus­tices like Steve Gon­za­lez serve long six-year terms, receive min­i­mal expo­sure in the mass media dur­ing their tenure, and are restrict­ed in how and when they can cam­paign for reelec­tion by the Code of Judi­cial Con­duct, they may lack the name recog­ni­tion that their exec­u­tive depart­ment coun­ter­parts (who are also elect­ed statewide) would usu­al­ly enjoy at elec­tion time.

Gon­za­lez’s col­leagues appear to share our con­cern that many vot­ers might not be able to dis­tin­guish between him and his oppo­nent. Recent­ly, Jus­tice Mary Yu, one of Gon­za­lez’s col­leagues on the high court), authored an op-ed addressed to the Asian Amer­i­can Pacif­ic Islander com­mu­ni­ty titled: “When Vot­ing for Judges, Don’t Be Fooled by the Name — Vote for Jus­tice Steve Gonzalez”.

“An ‘Asian sound­ing’ name might be attrac­tive to our com­mu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly if you do not have suf­fi­cient infor­ma­tion about his lack of qual­i­fi­ca­tions,” Yu wrote, refer­ring to Gon­za­lez’s chal­lenger. “But, please don’t be fooled by a name.”

Gon­za­lez has raised $322,105.31 for his reelec­tion to date (with over half that sum still unspent accord­ing to the most recent reports filed with the PDC), so he has the means with which to con­nect direct­ly with many vot­ers in these final days.

But not every vot­er will see a cam­paign’s paid ads.

Last week, bal­lots were mailed out to the vast major­i­ty of Wash­ing­ton’s more than 4.2 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers, with mil­i­tary and over­seas vot­ers hav­ing already been sent theirs last month. As of Mon­day after­noon, 51,158 bal­lots had come back to coun­ty audi­tors, with over 98% yet to be returned.

With most bal­lots still in vot­ers’ hands, now is the per­fect time for media and civic orga­ni­za­tions to shine a spot­light on judi­cial contests.

How about it, KOMO, KING, KIRO, KCPQ — can you spare some time on your upcom­ing news­casts to cov­er these judi­cial races?

It’s not just the Supreme Court con­test that needs atten­tion. I’ve dis­cussed it exten­sive­ly in this post, but there are also races for Supe­ri­or Court, Dis­trict Court, and Munic­i­pal Court in many juris­dic­tions. Here’s a list of posi­tions in Wash­ing­ton that have more than one can­di­date (and thus should be pri­or­i­tized for coverage):

  • Judge of the Court of Appeals (Divi­sion 1, Dis­trict 3, Posi­tion #2)
  • Grays Har­bor Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge #3
  • Chelan Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge #2
  • Chelan Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge #3
  • Spokane Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge #10
  • North­east Elec­toral Dis­trict (King Coun­ty) Judge #1
  • Shore­line Elec­toral Dis­trict (King Coun­ty) Judge #1
  • Cas­cade Dis­trict Court (Sno­homish Coun­ty) Judge #1
  • Pierce Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #3
  • Pierce Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #6
  • Taco­ma Munic­i­pal Court Judge #3
  • Spokane Dis­trict Court Judge #1
  • Cowlitz Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #1
  • Cowlitz Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #2
  • Cowlitz Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #3
  • Ben­ton Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #1
  • Chelan Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #2
  • Clal­lam Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #1
  • Clalam Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #2
  • Mason Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge
  • Stevens Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge
  • Whit­man Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #1
  • Kitit­tas Low­er Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge
  • Dou­glas Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge
  • Jef­fer­son Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge #1
  • San Juan Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge
  • Garfield Coun­ty Dis­trict Court Judge

The recent pro­ceed­ings in the Unit­ed States Sen­ate regard­ing the con­fir­ma­tion of Brett Kavanaugh have remind­ed us how impor­tant the judi­cia­ry is.

The courts real­ly mat­ter, and not just at the fed­er­al level.

In the past three weeks alone, the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court ruled that the death penal­ty as has been applied is uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, and fol­lowed that up by hold­ing that life sen­tences for youth are also unconstitutional.

Those were land­mark deci­sions that will pro­found­ly affect our state’s crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem (and for the bet­ter, I might add).

The cas­es that reach the high court are usu­al­ly first lit­i­gat­ed in a tri­al court, and those courts are no less impor­tant. Vot­ers get to decide who sits on the Supe­ri­or Court bench in many juris­dic­tions this year too. And final­ly, there are the Dis­trict and Munic­i­pal Courts, which are the courts cit­i­zens are most like­ly to inter­act with, as they han­dle cas­es of dri­ving under the influ­ence and civ­il traf­fic infractions.

Long ago, a deci­sion was made that judges around these parts should be elect­ed, and we still have that sys­tem. Whether or not it makes sense to keep it is a dis­cus­sion for anoth­er day. At present, there’s an elec­tion going on, and vot­ers could real­ly use more infor­ma­tion about the judi­cial con­tests on their ballots.

We’ll try to do our part here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate by cov­er­ing as many judi­cial races as we can between now and Novem­ber 6th. We hope oth­er media orga­ni­za­tions and civic orga­ni­za­tions will do the same.

POSTSCRIPT: Read­ers can expect a post here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate about the Court of Appeals con­test in Divi­sion 1 by the end of this week.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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3 replies on “State and local judicial contests aren’t getting enough attention — and that needs to change”

  1. A prob­lem with local judi­cial races is that many peo­ple have lit­tle knowl­edge of how these judges func­tion unless they have had busi­ness before the courts which might bias them in favor or in oppo­si­tion to a judge based on their own expe­ri­ences. Few of us have the time or incli­na­tion to sit in on dis­trict, munic­i­pal, or supe­ri­or court tri­als to observe the sys­tem in action fre­quent­ly enough to get a real pic­ture of a judge’s performance.

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