Washington State Supreme Court

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Washington State Supreme Court
Court information
Justices:   9
Founded:   1889
Chief:  $168,000
Associates:  $168,000
Judicial selection
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   6 years
Active justices

Charles W. Johnson  •  Debra Stephens  •  Barbara Madsen  •  Mary Fairhurst  •  Susan Owens  •  Steven Gonzalez  •  Mary Yu  •  Charlie Wiggins  •  Sheryl McCloud  •  

Seal of Washington.png

The Washington State Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Washington. It is based in Olympia in the Temple of Justice on the state capitol grounds. Nine justices serve on the court; they are elected in nonpartisan elections to serve six-year terms.

The court's duties and responsibilities are defined in Article IV of the Washington State Constitution of 1889. That constitution originally set the number of judges on the court at five, giving the Washington state legislature the right to change the number of judges from time to time as it deemed advisable.[1]


The current justices of the court are:
JudgeTermSelected by
Justice Charles W. Johnson1991-2021
Justice Debra Stephens2008-2021Gov. Christine Gregoire
Chief justice Barbara Madsen1992-2016Elected
Justice Mary Fairhurst2002-2021Elected
Justice Susan Owens2000-2018Elected
Justice Steven Gonzalez2012 - 2018Gov. Christine Gregoire
Judge Mary Yu2014-2021Gov. Jay Inslee
Justice Charlie Wiggins2011-2016Elected
Justice Sheryl McCloud2013-2019Elected

Judicial selection

The rules for electing justices to the court are set out in Article IV of the Washington Constitution and in Chapter 2.06 of the Revised Code of Washington. The Article calls for nine justices to be elected to six-year terms in nonpartisan elections. In the case of a vacancy, the replacement justice is appointed by the governor.[2]


To be considered a qualified candidate to serve on the Washington Supreme Court, a person must be licensed to practice law in Washington, as laid out in Section 17 of Article IV.

Justices must also retire from service at the end of the calendar year that he or she turns 75, according to Section 3(a) of Article IV of the state constitution. The state legislature is given the leeway under the constitution to reduce the retirement age to 70 should they see fit to do so.[3]

Additionally, according to Section 15 of Article IV, justices of the court are ineligible to serve in any other form of public employment during their term on the court, nor, according to Section 19, are they allowed to practice law in any Washington state court during their tenure on the court.[2]

Chief justice

The chief justice serves as the court's chief spokesperson, presiding over the court’s public hearings and serving as the administrative head of the state’s trial and appellate court system. The chief justice also chairs the Board for Judicial Administration (BJA), which is the policy-setting group of the state judiciary.[4] Up until 1995, the chief justice was determined through a rotation system. In 1995, the voters of the state passed a constitutional amendment changing this system to one where the chief justice is elected by the other justices. That same amendment changed the term of the chief justice from two to four years.[3]

Barbara Madsen is the current chief justice of the court. She was sworn in on January 11, 2010, to fill the remainder of Gerry Alexander's term. Madsen is only the second woman to fill the role of chief justice on the Washington Supreme Court.


The jurisdiction of the Washington State Supreme Court is defined in Section 4 of Article IV of the Washington State Constitution.

The Washington state capitol in Olympia, which houses the Washington Supreme Court

Section 4 ("Jurisdiction") of the Washington State Constitution "The supreme court shall have original jurisdiction in habeas corpus, and quo warranto and mandamus as to all state officers, and appellate jurisdiction in all actions and proceedings, excepting that its appellate jurisdiction shall not extend to civil actions at law for the recovery of money or personal property when the original amount in controversy, or the value of the property does not exceed the sum of two hundred dollars ($200) unless the action involves the legality of a tax, impost, assessment, toll, municipal fine, or the validity of a statute. The supreme court shall also have power to issue writs of mandamus, review, prohibition, habeas corpus, certiorari and all other writs necessary and proper to the complete exercise of its appellate and revisory jurisdiction. Each of the judges shall have power to issue writs of habeas corpus to any part of the state upon petition by or on behalf of any person held in actual custody, and may make such writs returnable before himself, or before the supreme court, or before any superior court of the state or any judge thereof."


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2014 * *
2013 1,578 1,509
2012 1,479 1,439
2011 1,515 1,503
2010 1,556 1,578
2009 1,570 1,832
2008 1,607 1,651
2007 1,468 1,382


* Washington has not released 2014 caseload data.



Unopposed  Judge Mary Yu (Position 1)
Unopposed  Judge Mary Fairhurst (Position 3)
Position 4
CandidateIncumbencyPrimary VoteElection Vote
JohnsonCharles W. JohnsonApprovedAYes73.3%   ApprovedA
YoonEddie Yoon No26.7%   DefeatedD
Position 7
CandidateIncumbencyPrimary VoteElection Vote
StephensDebra StephensApprovedAYes78.1%   ApprovedA
ScannellJohn Scannell No21.9%   DefeatedD

Political outlook

See also: Political outlook of State Supreme Court Justices

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook of state supreme court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Washington was given a campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Washington received a score of -0.91. Based on the justices selected, Washington was the 5th most liberal court. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.[6]


Judicial conduct

The state of Washington has a Code of Judicial Conduct which is composed of four major canons (each consists of several sub-rules):

  1. A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
  2. A judge should perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently.
  3. A judge shall conduct the judge's personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.
  4. A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.[7]

The code in its entirety can be read here.[8]

Removal of justices

  • A judge may be removed from office with a joint resolution of the two houses of state legislature if 3/4 of each house concur.
  • The Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct investigates cases of judicial conduct and can make a recommendation to the state supreme court to remove a judge from office. The supreme court makes the final decision.[9]

Financial disclosure

See also: Center for Public Integrity Study on State Supreme Court Disclosure Requirements

In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Washington earned a grade of D in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.[10]

Notable cases


The Temple of Justice (entrance to the Washington Supreme Court)
Courthouse interior
  • 1848-1852: Washington was a part of the Oregon Territory. Three justices were appointed by the president to serve on the territorial supreme court.
  • 1853: Separating from the Oregon Territory, the Washington Territory was created with its own supreme court.
  • 1889: Washington became a member of the union, and the state constitution outlined the structure of the state supreme court. Five justices would be elected by voters.
  • 1905: The number of justices on the court was increased to seven.
  • 1907: Legislation replaced party conventions with a nonpartisan election method for judges.
  • 1909: The court was expanded again to nine justices.[1]

Notable firsts

  • 1981: Carolyn Dimmick became the court's first female justice.[21]
  • 1988: Charles Z. Smith became the first black justice of the Washington Supreme Court.[22]

See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Washington State Courts, "Brief History of the Washington State Supreme Court," accessed October 30, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 Washington State Courts, "Guide to Washington Courts: The Supreme Court," accessed October 30, 2014
  3. 3.0 3.1 American Judicature Society, "Methods of Judicial Selection: Washington," accessed October 30, 2014
  4. Washington State Court, "Washington Supreme Court Elects Chief Justice," November 7, 2008
  5. Washington Courts, “Caseloads of the Courts of Washington”
  6. Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  7. 7.0 7.1 Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  8. Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct, "Code of Judicial Conduct," accessed October 30, 2014
  9. American Judicature Society, "Removal of judges: Washington," accessed October 30, 2014
  10. Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
  11. Washington State Legislature, "Washington Constitution," accessed March 30, 2014
  12. Supreme Court of Washington, "McCleary v. State," September 11, 2014
  13. Seattle Met, "Jolt: WA Supreme Court Says State is in "Contempt" for Not Fully Funding K-12 Schools," September 11, 2014
  14. Seattle Times, "Wash Court OKs contact ban for non-victim spouse," November 20, 2008
  15. Oregon Live, "WA court: Public records can be kept from inmates," July 3, 2008
  16. New York Times, "Washington Court Upholds Ban on Gay Marriage," July 26, 2006
  17. CNN.com, "Washington voters pass same-sex marriage, CNN projects," November 9, 2012
  18. Seattle Times, "Court: Attorney-client privilege overrides open-records law," May 14, 2004
  19. Ballotpedia.org, "Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound v. City of Des Moines," accessed October 30, 2014
  20. Federal Way Mirror, "Courts are exempt from state's Public Records Act," October 26, 2009
  21. Washington Secretary of State, "Carolyn Dimmick: A judge for all seasons," accessed October 30, 2014
  22. Washington Secretary of State, "Charles Z. Smith: Trailblazer," accessed October 30, 2014