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WA Supreme Court incumbent seeks to recognize bias in decision making

Washington State Supreme Court. (Harvey Barrison, Flickr)

Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis is the incumbent in the election for position three on the Washington state Supreme Court. She was appointed by Governor Inslee to fill the term of Justice Mary Fairhurst, who retired.

There’s a current movement to try and change the way the justice system behaves to move away from punishment and toward prevention and intercepting people who were on the wrong path before it goes too far. This is something Montoya-Lewis’ opponent, Judge Dave Larson, is focusing on. Where does she come down on that issue?

“I have presided over drug courts. I was the felony therapeutic drug court presiding judge for the last 2.5 years in Whatcom County, I’ve seen that program turn lives around. I have seen people who were long-term, persistent offenders in the system become sober and not re-offend. I think those kinds of approaches are outstanding approaches, and I have developed those kinds of courts,” she said.

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“That said, I have had hundreds of times in my career where jail or prison was the appropriate sentence, and I sentenced people to community service, I sentenced people to life in prison,” she added. “And I think there are times where that’s absolutely the appropriate response.”

The whole criminal justice system from police through the courts is certainly being challenged now by the current wave of demonstrations, with a consistent theme implying that it’s all systemically racist. Does she believe that is the case?

“I don’t think that there’s any question that the judicial system, law enforcement, all the way to the position I held as a Superior Court judge, as well as the position I hold as the Supreme Court Justice now, participates in the system that clearly impacts communities of color in a disproportionate way,” she said.

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“I think it’s really important to recognize that, in my experience, the judges I’ve worked with are all people of good intention who are doing what they believed to be correct in terms of following the law,” she continued. “We don’t have any say in what case comes in front of us as judges; prosecutors make the decisions as to what should be prosecuted and what should not. And so it’s my view that as a group, we should all be working together to address those issues.”

For Montoya-Lewis, it’s about attempting to recognize biases where they may impact how decisions are made.

“I think we all operate based on assumptions and biases that sometimes we’re unaware of. I have taught judges again nationally and in the state of Washington about how to interrogate their own decision-making processes to address some of those things,” she said.

“I have yet to meet a judge who comes in and says, I think this person, because they look this way, is more likely to have committed a crime or deserves a longer sentence. But still, we see that as the result,” Montoya-Lewis acknowledged. “And I think it’s critical that we commit to all of us looking at how we individually make those decisions and also how, at a legislative statutory level, we’re encouraged to make those decisions. I think it takes all of us to be having that conversation across the systems we work in, across party lines, and I think that we’re all people of good intention trying to resolve these issues.”

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