NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

Incoming federal judges David Estudillo and Tana Lin will diversify and strengthen a federal bench that has spoken truth to power

A clo­ture peti­tion recent­ly filed in the U.S. Sen­ate sug­gests that we are close to a final vote on the con­fir­ma­tion of Pres­i­dent Biden’s nom­i­na­tions of Grant Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge David Estudil­lo and civ­il rights attor­ney Tana Lin to the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the West­ern Dis­trict of Washington.

This is a big deal, for diver­si­ty on the fed­er­al bench as well as strength­en­ing a fed­er­al bench that has deliv­ered land­mark deci­sions. As Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray, D‑Washington, put it when the nom­i­na­tions were announced: “The fed­er­al judi­cial sys­tem plays a deeply sig­nif­i­cant role in shap­ing our every­day lives: It’s impor­tant to appoint high­ly qual­i­fied indi­vid­u­als who also reflect the make­up of our country.”

When appoint­ed by Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee to his Grant Coun­ty post in 2015, Estudil­lo became the first Lati­no to serve as a supe­ri­or court judge east of the Cas­cades. He has since been retained by vot­ers in the con­ser­v­a­tive Cen­tral Wash­ing­ton coun­ty, despite Trumpian cam­paign tac­tics.

Lin would become the first Asian Amer­i­can on the fed­er­al bench in West­ern Wash­ing­ton. She has prac­ticed civ­il rights law and once worked for the Civ­il Rights Divi­sion of the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment. She is pres­i­dent of the board of direc­tors of the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union of Washington.

The names were put for­ward by Sen­a­tors Mur­ray and Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, in accor­dance with tra­di­tion. They “reflect the diver­si­ty we need on the fed­er­al bench,” said Cantwell, and both are “high­ly qualified.”

They need to be. Lives of North­west­ern­ers have been shaped by deci­sions com­ing down from the fed­er­al cour­t­house. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which has increas­ing­ly sided with busi­ness and weak­ened civ­il rights enforce­ment, the under­dog has often emerged as top dog in rul­ings here.

The most famous rul­ing came in 1974 when U.S. Dis­trict Judge George Boldt, a Richard Nixon appointee, ruled that Native Amer­i­can tribes were enti­tled to fifty per­cent of the com­mer­cial salmon catch.

The fish­ing indus­try was out­raged: A block­ade of fish­ing boats greet­ed Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford when he arrived for a 1976 ral­ly at the Seat­tle waterfront.

Still, despite pre­dic­tions from then-Attor­ney Gen­er­al Slade Gor­ton, the Boldt deci­sion held up on appeal. And, thanks to Native Amer­i­can leader Bil­ly Frank, Jr., it became an impe­tus for restora­tion of dec­i­mat­ed salmon runs. To catch fish, Frank explained, both native and non-native fish­ers need­ed fish.

As sug­gest­ed by Inslee’s appoint­ment of Estudil­lo, the His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion of East­ern Wash­ing­ton has found itself large­ly exclud­ed from high office.

And not by accident.

OneAm­er­i­ca and the ACLU, with help from the Perkins Coie law firm, won a land­mark rul­ing when they chal­lenged Yakima’s at-large sys­tem for elect­ing city Coun­cil mem­bers. U.S. Dis­trict Judge Thomas Rice found that by at-large vot­ing “the non-Lati­no major­i­ty in Yaki­ma rou­tine­ly suf­fo­cates the vot­ing pref­er­ences of the Lati­no minority.”

Three can­di­dates from the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty were sub­se­quent­ly elect­ed to the City Coun­cil. Now it’s the coun­ty’s turn. Under a set­tle­ment now pend­ing in Kit­ti­tas Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court, Yaki­ma Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­ers will hence­forth be both nom­i­nat­ed and elect­ed by dis­trict rather than at large.

There are oth­er rul­ings that come to mind, too.

For exam­ple: Unpro­tect­ed old-growth for­est was being clear cut at a rate of 60,000 acres a year in fed­er­al forests of the Pacif­ic Northwest.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Bill Dwyer ruled that the U.S. For­est Ser­vice was vio­lat­ing the Endan­gered Species Act by imper­il­ing the north­ern spot­ted owl.

Sen­a­tor Slade Gor­ton had cham­pi­oned Dwyer’s nom­i­na­tion to the fed­er­al bench by Pres­i­dent Rea­gan, but show­ered his old friend with denunciations.

Dwyer was also to throw out Washington’s ini­tia­tive decree­ing term lim­its for fed­er­al office­hold­ers, in a Supreme Court-qual­i­ty opin­ion that held up through appeal. Along with now senior U.S. Dis­trict Judge Jack Coughenouer – who pres­i­dent over tri­al of the Mil­len­ni­al Bomber – Dwyer was a pow­er­ful pres­ence whose influ­ence extend­ed beyond the local bench.

The most famous recent rul­ing out of the West­ern Dis­trict came in 2017, when U.S. Dis­trict Judge James Robart grant­ed a tem­po­rary restrain­ing order block­ing Don­ald Trump’s first trav­el ban tar­get­ing Mus­lims from going into effect.

The U.S. Ninth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals lat­er upheld Robart’s rul­ing, lead­ing to Trump’s Twit­ter tantrum against a “so-called judge.”

Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son has made mas­ter­ful use of U.S. Dis­trict Courts, in both West­ern and East­ern Dis­tricts of Wash­ing­ton, to block Trump actions, from roll­backs of envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions to attempts at ham­string­ing fed­er­al fund­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood. Judge Robart would go on CBS’ “60 Min­utes” to relate the threats and hate mail he received from sup­port­ers of the for­mer president.

(Robart has also presided over the U.S. Jus­tice Department’s con­sent decree and over­seen reforms to the Seat­tle Police Department.)

Assum­ing con­fir­ma­tion by the U.S. Sen­ate, Judges Estudil­lo and Lin can expect a full work­load. The West­ern Dis­trict of Wash­ing­ton has been reduced to just two active dis­trict judges — Ricar­do Mar­tinez and Richard Jones – while nine judges on senior sta­tus con­tin­ue to car­ry heavy work­loads.  Lawyers who are unpre­pared appear at their own risk in Jack Coughenouer’s courtroom.

The new judges can look around for reminders of jus­tice in the Northwest.

The Nisqually Nation­al Wildlife Refuge bears the name of Bil­ly Frank, Jr., who endured thir­ty plus arrests while cham­pi­oning trib­al fish­ing rights.

The jury room at Seattle’s new fed­er­al cour­t­house is named for Bill Dwyer, who pub­lished a book cel­e­brat­ing the jury sys­tem as he was dying of cancer.

The old fed­er­al cour­t­house is named for William K. Naka­mu­ra, a Japan­ese-Amer­i­can sent to an intern­ment camp with his fam­i­ly in 1942, but was award­ed the Con­gres­sion­al Medal of Hon­or as a sol­dier on the Ital­ian front in World War II. He was killed on Inde­pen­dence Day in 1944.

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