Changing the face of Washington’s justice system
In the past decade, Inslee has strived to make Washington’s courts look more like the communities they serve
“In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.” — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote those words in 2003, in a decision affirming the right of institutions to seek and promote diversity within their ranks.
Seeing a wide range of lived experience and perspectives among the ranks of civic and government leaders has a powerful effect, particularly for communities of people who have historically been denied a seat at tables of power.
For Gov. Jay Inslee, who has sought to improve equity across Washington’s legal justice system, increasing diversity on court benches has been an ongoing effort. He has sought to appoint judges and justices at every level of the court system that ensure the state’s courts are more reflective of the people they serve. The governor’s appointments have also created a pipeline of highly-qualified judges who are being tapped for higher courts. President Biden, like President Obama before him, has elevated some of the governor’s appointees to the federal bench.
From district and county courts to the Washington Supreme Court, the personal stories of the judges the governor appointed are inspirational — and a reminder of the importance of inclusion across all branches of government.
One of the most diverse Supreme Courts in the country
Last week, on Jan. 9, the governor joined the swearing-in ceremony for Justice Mary Yu, who is starting her third term on the Washington Supreme Court.
Yu, who happens to be the first person the governor appointed to the state’s highest court in 2014, has a number of honorary “firsts” to her name. She officiated at the first same-sex marriages in the state, and became the first Asian-American, first Latina, and first member of the LGBTQ community to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court. Growing up in a working class family on Chicago’s south side, she was the first person in her family to go to college — a feat she was not always sure she would achieve.
Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell explained the way Yu sets an example for her fellow judges.
“Justice Yu, in many ways, is the conscience of the judiciary,” O’Donnell said. “In her work, she recognizes the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law — that difference being people.”
The governor’s next appointees to the state’s highest court made history too. In 2019, the governor appointed Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis to the state’s highest court, making her the first Native American judge to serve on the Washington Supreme Court and the second Native American to serve on a state supreme court anywhere in the United States.
Most recently, in April of 2020, while 23 states still had supreme courts comprised entirely of white men, the governor appointed Justice G. Helen Whitener to the state’s supreme court. Whitener is the first Black woman on the court, and her appointment brings the total number of female justices on the state’s highest bench to seven — more than any other state in the union.
Justices have influence and impact beyond their courtroom decisions and deliberations. Yu, for example, devotes significant time and energy to mentoring young lawyers from historically underrepresented communities, including women, people of color and people with disabilities. Her work has contributed to Washington’s strong pipeline of hard-working, talented people from a range of backgrounds consistently moving forward into leadership positions in the legal field.
Bringing change to every corner of Washington and every level of the courts
Appointing more women and more people from communities of color to the bench has been a priority at every level of the court system in all parts of the state. Through the end of 2022, half of the governor’s 158 judicial appointments were women, and thirty percent of the appointees are judges who identify as being from communities of color.
When Judge Camara Banfield joined the Clark County prosecutor’s office in 2004, there was just one woman on the Clark County Superior Court, along with eight men. Banfield, a former track and field star at the University of Oregon and gold medalist at the 1995 Track and Field World Championships, rose through the ranks to become the office’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor. At the same time, Banfield committed herself to serving the community — joining the Vancouver School Board of Directors, volunteering with a Meals on Wheels program and coaching the county’s youth in track and field.
When the governor took office in 2013, the Clark County Superior Court still had just one woman on the bench, out of nine seats. The governor made it a point to change that, and his last four appointments to the court have been women. In 2021, he appointed Banfield to the court, making her the first Black judge and first Black female judge to sit on the Clark County Superior Court bench.
On the other side of the state, in 2019, Governor Inslee also appointed the first Black female judge to the Spokane County Superior Court, naming Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren, a former administrative law judge and assistant attorney general for the post. She continues to serve in that role with distinction, and in late 2022, President Biden formally recognized her talent and ability. He nominated Bjelkengren to serve as a federal judge for Washington’s Eastern District, giving her another opportunity to make history as the first Black federal judge in Eastern Washington.
In other parts of Washington too, the governor has helped remake the judiciary to better reflect the community, appointing Judge Sonia Rodriguez True to become the first Latina judge in the Yakima County Superior Court, Judge Janet Chung as the first Korean American female to the Court of Appeals, and Susan Amini to the King County Superior Court as the first judge of Middle Eastern descent to serve on a superior court in the state.
Another of the governor’s judicial appointees, Judge Norma Rodriguez, is the daughter of two migrant farmworkers and became the first Latina to serve on the Benton and Franklin Counties Superior Court in 2022. She summarized the importance of having a judiciary that reflects the people it is meant to serve.
“I want the community to know that no matter what race you are, what language you speak, what your economic standing is, or what your background is, I will treat you impartially and with equality,” Rodriguez said. “It is important for everyone to have equal rights and access to court law proceedings.”
Justice system changes beyond the bench
Kathryn Leathers, the governor’s general counsel, oversees the office’s judicial appointment process and advises the governor on appointments. She reiterated the governor’s commitment to advancing the causes of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal system, saying, “courts serve diverse communities, and the governor has sought to build a more diverse, representative judiciary in every community in our state.” She explained that the governor “has been intentional in this effort to foster more inclusive, more informed, more perspective-rich courts.”
But transforming the judiciary is not the only way the governor has worked to correct long-standing disparities in the legal system. His administration has strived to increase access to legal help by protecting and expanding access to civil legal aid. The governor created a statewide council to help people released from prison successfully re-enter society, launched a Marijuana Justice Initiative, and established a moratorium on the state’s death penalty in 2014. Washington state’s death penalty was later ruled unconstitutional in 2018 largely due to racial disparities.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s first Chief Justice, John Jay, once wrote, “justice is indiscriminately due to all, without regard to numbers, wealth, or rank.”
As efforts continue to change the face of Washington’s justice system and root out inequities, Washington is moving closer to that ideal.