The Supreme Court of the United States may be the nation’s highest profile and best known court of law (and it’s been in the news a lot lately!), but it’s hardly the only Supreme Court in the land. That’s because most states have opted to establish their own Supreme Courts, following the judicial structure set forth in the Constitution of the United States back in the 1790s.
Washington is one of those states. Its Supreme Court even has an identical number of justices as that of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS): nine. However, unlike SCOTUS, justices on the Washington State Supreme Court are popularly elected for six year terms and must retire at the age of seventy-five.
If a justice dies or retires before completing a term, the vacancy is filled by gubernatorial appointment. Because justices at the state level are popularly elected (a justice must face the voters at the next general election to retain their seat), the State Senate has no role in confirming justices.
This year, two appointed justices are seeking to be retained by the voters, while another two are seeking reelection (and have already achieved reelection due to being unopposed). The appointed justices are Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Washington’s first Native American justice, and G. Helen Whitener, Washington’s first black woman and refugee justice. Both are considered exceptionally well qualified by the legal community, but are unknown to most Washingtonians.
Last May, in our post Filing Week statewide survey, we asked voters about their Supreme Court preferences. Unsurprisingly, vast majority of voters that our pollster connected with had no opinion with respect to either race, though Montoya-Lewis and Whitener did each receive plurality support.
Our latest poll, which was in the field last week for two days, finds that more Washingtonians have decided who they’re voting for… and Montoya-Lewis and Whitener remain ahead of their more conservative opponents.
21% of survey participants said Montoya-Lewis was their choice for Position #3, while 17% of participants said challenger David Larson was their choice.
A large majority of 62% said they were not sure.
For Position #6, 22% of survey participants said G. Helen Whitener was their choice, while 12% said Richard S. Serns was their choice.
66% said they were not sure.
Those may sound like very high “not sure” numbers. And they are.
But they’re not as big as what we saw earlier this year.
In the spring, none of the candidates registered above 15% in our polling, with about eight in ten respondents saying they were not sure in each race.
Raquel Montoya-Lewis has gone from 14% to 21%, a seven point jump, while G. Helen Whitener has gone from 13% to 22%, a nine point jump. David Larson and Richard S. Serns have doubled their support from the single digits to the teens, with Larson going from 8% to 17% and Serns from 6% to 12%.
Here are the numbers again and the exact questions we asked:
QUESTION: The 2020 candidates for the Washington State Supreme Court Position #3 are David Larson and Raquel Montoya-Lewis. Who are you voting for?
- David Larson: 17%
- Raquel Montoya-Lewis: 21%
- Not sure: 62%
And for Position #6:
QUESTION: The 2020 candidates for the Washington State Supreme Court Position #6 are G. Helen Whitener and Richard S. Serns. Who are you voting for?
- G. Helen Whitener: 22%
- Richard S. Serns: 12%
- Not sure: 66%
Our survey of six hundred and ten likely 2020 Washington State voters was in the field from Wednesday, October 14th through Thursday, October 15th.
It utilizes a blended methodology, with automated phone calls to landlines and text message answers from cell phone only respondents.
The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling for the Northwest Progressive Institute, and has a margin of error of +/- 4.0% at the 95% confidence level.
Due to being incumbents, Montoya-Lewis and Whitener ought to benefit more from word-of-mouth advertising and newspaper endorsements than their opponents, just like Justice Steven Gonzalez did two years ago.
Whitener has been rated exceptionally well qualified by nine bar associations to date. Serns has been rated as not qualified by the King County Bar Association; he has no other ratings. Montoya-Lewis is rated exceptionally well qualified by eight bar associations and well qualified by a ninth. Larson is rated qualified by the King County Bar Association; we are unaware of any other ratings.
Both Whitener and Montoya-Lewis have swept the endorsements of the major newspapers that have endorsed for the Supreme Court.
“The appointments of Whitener and Montoya-Lewis arguably have afforded the state the most diverse state supreme court in the nation, one that better represents the cultural makeup of the state, itself. Voters should retain Whitener [and Montoya-Lewis] on the court and secure that legacy for the state,” The Herald of Everett opined on October 21st.
“[Governor Inslee] made history when he appointed the first Native American, and then the first Black woman, to the state’s highest court. Now that these incredible justices are there, we recommend they stay. That’s why Raquel Montoya-Lewis and Helen Whitener are our choices for the state Supreme Court,” the Yakima Herald-Republic editorialized on October 16th.
For many voters, a tried and true method of discerning who to vote for in low-profile judicial races is to ask someone who has been admitted to the bar, or has a connection to the legal community. With their endorsements, excellent bar ratings, campaign investments, and slight polling leads. Montoya-Lewis and Whitener have to be considered the favorites in their respective races.
But with so many voters not sure, those outcomes are not a given.
You can do your part to ensure that people you know cast an informed vote in judicial races by reading up on the candidates and sharing what you learn with your family and friends so they can benefit from your research.
Voting in the 2020 presidential election is currently in progress and is set to conclude on November 3rd, 2020 at 8 PM Pacific in Washington State.