OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington will have a new Supreme Court justice come January. He's Superior Court Judge Steven Gonzalez of Seattle - the first ethnic minority to serve on the high court in nearly a decade. He's also an outspoken voice on the issue of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Governor Chris Gregoire chose the Supreme Court Chambers to announce her choice to replace Justice Gerry Alexander — who's reached the maximum retirement age of 75. The packed courtroom was on its feet cheering before the Democratic governor could offer congratulations to her appointee.
"It is my pleasure on behalf of the citizens of this great state to make my appointment of King County Superior Court Judge Steve Gonzalez to the Washington State Supreme Court," Gregoire said.
Gonzalez describes himself as half Mexican and half Eastern European. He's only the second ethnic minority to serve on the Washington Supreme Court. The first was Justice Charles Z. Smith, an African-American of Cuban descent who retired from the bench in 2002.
But Gonzalez did not dwell on his ethnic heritage. Instead, he told the story of his humble roots growing up in a California college town. He drew laughs with a story about cleaning park bathrooms in high school.
"And I had a lot of time to reflect on what might lie ahead of me," Gonzalez said. "And I think the restrooms were a very good reason for me to want to go to college."
He did and went on to law school at Berkeley. Gonzalez later served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. In that role he prosecuted Ahmed Ressam, the would-be "Millenium Bomber," who was caught at Port Angeles in 1999 with a car full of explosives.
Nearly ten years ago, then-Governor Gary Locke appointed Gonzalez to the King County Superior Court, where he's served since.
Hugh Spitzer is a lawyer and law professor in Seattle who once ran for Supreme Court. He praises the Governor's choice.
"Steve Gonzalez is a high quality appointment," Spitzer says. "He happens to fill a helpful role in bringing some ethnic balance to the court, but the most important thing is he's a solid judge and a good thinker."
Last year, Gonzalez convened a work group to look at racial disparities in the criminal justice system. That move was prompted by a Seattle Times story that quoted then-Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders as having said "African Americans are overrepresented in the prison population because they commit a disproportionate number of crimes."
Gonzalez's work group, in a preliminary report, calls Sanders' comments a "gross oversimplification" of why minorities are overrepresented in prisons.
And Gonzalez says equal access to justice is one of his passions.
"I think it's important for the judicial branch to take the lead in exploring that, to research it and if there are problems to find out where they are and work to remedy them," he says.
Republican political consultant and court watcher Alex Hays is concerned by what he sees as an activist approach on an issue like racial disparities. He contrasts Gonzalez with outgoing Justice Gerry Alexander who served for many years as the state's Chief Justice.
"We see this individual who arrives with a very political story to tell, replacing a person who had an assiduously apolitical story to tell and I think that's noteworthy," Hays says.
Hayes predicts Gonzalez will shift the Washington Supreme Court to the left. When asked about his own leanings, Gonzalez recites his background as a prosecutor and notes he was also a business lawyer.
Gonzalez will ascend to the high court at the start of the new year. To keep his seat he will have to run for election next fall.
On the Web:
Washington Supreme Court: http://www.courts.wa.gov/appellate_trial_courts/supremecourt/
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