Thursday, June 18, 2009

Washington Supreme Court withdraws ruling over judicial conflict

Robert Ambrogi, on's Legal Blog Watch this morning, has a post about the Washington Supreme Court's withdrawning a landmark ruling in a public records case in response to complaints that the opinion could benefit a separate suit filed by one of the justices who decided the case.

Mr. Ambrogi writes that Washington Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders wrote the majority opinion in a case capping a 12-year quest to obtain documents from King County, Washington about the public funding of Qwest Field in Seattle, but that county lawyers complained that Sanders had a conflict of interest because "even as he decided the case against King County, he had his own public records lawsuit pending against the state's attorney general, and used the first ruling to seek an increase in fines being awarded in his case."

An article in Tuesday’s Seattle Times related that Justice Sanders’ lawsuit involved "his efforts to obtain documents from the state's attorney general regarding a visit he had made with sex offenders back in 2003 while some of them had cases pending before the court," for which Sanders was later sanctioned for by the Judicial Conduct Commission. Sanders had subsequently appealed, but lost, that sanction.

The recusal question here is perhaps reminiscent of the holdings, at least, of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion, earlier this month, in Caperton v. Massey Coal. While there is stark difference between Caperton and the present set of circumstances, Caperton’s petition for writ of certiorari referenced the Supreme Court's emphasis in Commonwealth Coatings v. Cont’l Cas Co. in 1968 that "any tribunal permitted by law to try cases & controversies not only must be unbiased, but also even avoid the appearance of bias," Caperton didn’t set out detailed standards for recusal. "The Court left many questions unanswered, inviting the states to sort out where the lines should be drawn to determine when recusal was appropriate," the New York Times said in an article titled "Uncertainty in Law Circles Over New Rules for Judges."

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