Supreme Court Justices talk sex, drugs, R&R in Port Townsend

The Washington State Supreme Court Justices who came to Port Townsend May 13-14 included Sheryl McCloud, back row left; Steve Gonzalez, back row, second from right; Mary Yu, back row right; Susan Owens, front row left; Barbara Madsen, front row second from right; and Debra Stephens, front row right. Photos courtesy of

Seven of the nine Justices of the Washington State Supreme Court visited Port Townsend this week, to hear three cases on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

The cases have to do with : a creepy guy's right to hang out at the playground; a university staff's attempts to unionize; and Seattle's campaign voucher program. Here is a link to actual explanations. You can go watch; it's at Superior Court at 9 am. It's a beautiful courtroom, and you're allowed to just go in there and watch; you don't have to explain to anyone why you're there. Yes! you're allowed to go watch. The Superior Court is in that big red building behind the tennis courts on Jefferson Street, Uptown.

The Justices also did some public appearances; after all, they are elected officials, aka politicians, so it's in their best interest to hop on available soapboxes. They visited local schools, then convened at the City Council Chambers in PT for an adults version, which was significantly duller than the PTHS session.

Two of the Justices took part in the "Salon" held in the PT High School auditorium during 7th period, around 2 pm. The auditorium was pretty full of students, and introductions were made by Anna Brady, whose exact title I missed because I was a few minutes late, but I gathered she's a lawyer who works with the Court. She's also a graduate of PTHS.
Justice Barbara Madsen
Brady introduced Justice Barbara Madsen, who has been on the State Supreme Court since 1992. They were passing the microphone around and standing in front of the stage, rather than reclining upon the padded benches that comprised the set of the current school play, "Cabaret."

Madsen started off with Career-Choosing stuff. "Hearing about what directions people chose, and why, might help you," she said. "In high school, I had no idea that I would be a lawyer," let alone a judge on the state Supreme Court. Her dream was to be a translator for the United Nations, or a foreign correspondent for a news org like the New York Times. "I knew that I cared about the problems of people who were my neighbors ... and people who I would never meet." She had four brothers who had a tendency to get in trouble in high school, and she thought, "if I become a criminal defense lawyer, I could help my brothers!" So she did. "I'm a little bit of a ham," she said, "which I took as meaning I like to speak in front of people, I like to connect with people." As a criminal defense lawyer, she liked talking to juries, telling her clients' stories.

In 1992, the hearing on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's sexual harassment of Anita Hill had a big impact on her. "He had done some things to an employee," and she testified, and nobody believed her, even though she was a lawyer herself and a law professor. "It was like the beginning of the MeToo movement," Madsen said. "I was so shocked ... I decided that I needed to do something about gender inequality." 

Now that she's on the State Supreme Court, she said, "it's all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Really!"

Next up was Justice Steve Gonzalez, who began with several stupid jokes. Did you hear about the fire at the circus? It was intense. A guy walks into a therapist's office and says, Doc, I need help. Sometimes I think I'm a tipi, and sometimes I think I'm a wigwam. And other times I think I'm a wigwam, and then I think I'm a tipi. And the therapist says, you're too tense!
Justice Steven Gonzalez

"Aaaaugh!" said the students.

Gonzalez said he had wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but it turns out that's really hard so he just became a Supreme Court Justice. He grew up in Southern California, and nobody in his family had been to college. He said he could relate to kids who feel like people have low expectations of them, because his high-school counselor suggested he become an auto mechanic or maybe a claims adjustor. He said, once he was speaking to another group of students, and a 14-year-old came up to him afterwards to tell him how inspiring his talk had been. The 14-year-old said, "If you can make it, anybody can."  Auuughhh.

In the summer between his junior and senior years, he decided he wanted to go to college, and there were several in his town. So he picked one and went in to ask for an application, but the person in the admissions office said, "is it for someone else?" which hurt his feelings. He kept trying and they kept resisting. Then they explained, Scripps is a women's college. Then he really wanted to go there. Auuughhh.

Anyway, bootstraps, etc., etc. He said he lied on the application to his first job, when he was 14 years old; he claimed to be 16 and have a driver's license, and they never checked, so he got the job, which was cleaning bathrooms at the city parks. 

But he loved college, loved being in class, the discussions in class. He loved the learning itself, not just the utilitarian aspect of college allowing him to have more freedoms. (Isn't it funny how money equals freedom, so when he says "freedoms" he meant money, but the word free means no money is required? I love English.)

Gonzalez said he spent his sophomore year in Japan, and he was into ceramics, like raku pottery, so he liked to see how people made their kilns, like one town that built kilns up a mountainside. And he got a motorcycle and traveled around Japan on it. Raku-loving motorcycle judge! He loved Japan so much he decided to major in East Asian studies, and studied Chinese, and went to study in China in 1985, one of the first years American students did so. And it was hard to find good socks with elastic that held the socks up, and he washed his and hung them to dry one day and someone stole them all so he didn't have good socks the whole rest of the time; they all fell down because they had bad elastic. And it was cold, and they could only use the heat for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, and sometimes the electricity would go out because too many people would be trying to heat their rooms with their hot plates. And at first he thought all the Chinese students were very plump but it turned out they were just wearing 12 layers of long underwear, and as the weather warmed up, the people got slimmer and there was more and more long underwear hanging up to dry.

He said, also, that as a Supreme Court Justice, he gets to hear some of the best lawyers in the state, some of the worst lawyers but some of the best. And he said that in the Temple of Justice, in Olympia, "my office is bigger than the house I grew up in."

Then it was time for students to ask questions.

Q: Does it feel good to be deciding the cases instead of arguing them?
A: Gonzalez said, "It feels different ... I liked being an advocate ... it's a very different skill set."

Q: Would Cascadia ever happen?
A: Madsen said, "Are we talking secession?"
Gonzalez interpreted the question as, would that happen and what are the legal requirements to secede?
Madsen recalled a case, an attempt by some people north of Everett to establish a new county and the court said it's not possible under our state Constitution. "I would say ... look back to the Civil War." She said, "I suppose it's possible for a petition to be filed with the US Congress ... but ... highly complicated ... because it's both the state and the federal government that you'd have to convince.
Gonzalez noted that Westward Expansion included stealing land from Native Americans and taking land from Mexico. "Politics drive this, too."
I think they erred in seeing this question as "can we make a new state?" more than "can we make a new country?" New country! Aaauugghh!

Q: What do lawyers do that annoy you?
A: Gonzalez: "I have a bit of a peeve with lawyers." He said, they have 20 minutes a side, and when they can't explain clearly what they want us to do and how they want us to do it, and they've gotten all the way to the Supreme Court and they still can't explain it clearly in 20 minutes, that annoys him.
Madsen said, "lack of honesty." She said when lawyers lie about stuff, they find out eventually, anyway, but "you have to be able to rely on the integrity" of the lawyers. It's very annoying. "Integrity is very important in a lawyer."

Q:  You were inspired to be a criminal-justice lawyer because of your brothers. Has it ever been handy with your kids?
A:  Madsen said she has 4 kids, and the answer is Yes. She said one of her kids was charged as an adult, even though she was a juvenile. It was in Pierce County (they live in Tacoma) and her daughter was driving down Ruston Way with her music too loud, which isn't legal there, so she got charged. In Pierce County, juveniles can argue her own case before a "jury" of kids their own age. "I required her to go through this," Madsen said. "To make her think about what the people who live on Ruston Way actually think about people blaring their music too loud."
Gonzalez said he has 2 boys, ages 15 and 16, who never misbehave, harhar, and told a fun story about how they would stage mock trials with their bath toys when they were little. The judge was a gorilla, the prosecutor was a shark and the defense lawyer was a rat. It was a case where the dinosaur had stepped on a duckie. The duckie laughed. So the boys understood intent! He was very proud. I didn't get it but I still liked the story.

Q: What is the strangest trial you have heard?
A: Madsen said she once defended a guy who was part of the Posse Comitatus, who believe they are not bound by laws, and he suddenly fell flat on his back in the middle of the trial. "We thought he had expired," she said, "we thought he had died."
Some boys behind me found this hilarious because they had never heard anyone say "expired" instead of "died." We love English.
Gonzalez recalled a murder case that involved bringing a whole car into the courtroom to show the jury exactly how the 14-year-old suspect hid in the trunk and then wriggled into the backseat before shooting the driver in the back of the head.

Q: Is there a particular subject or category of case that you like hearing?
A: Madsen said no, every case interests her. "We are the last word. Whatever we decide, it's the law now."

Q: How plausible is the idea of giving Nature or Comminities rights?
A: Madsen said, "who would have thought corporations were people? So anything can happen." She said there's an animal rights movement now, because we treat animals like property, now. "If you can give an inanimate thing like a corporation, rights, like free speech for example ..." then yes, it is plausible. She said, "we have laws that recognize the importance of Nature, now."
Gonzalez said, we could have a new Constitutional Convention and decide about things like that. "Rules are changed by advocacy and movements," he said. "It's hard work, but we have done it."


Okay, so that was the high-school session. Immediately afterwards, Swordfern Press joined a much smaller, much more venerably aged group of Port Townsenders in City Council Chambers for a Q&A with Justices Madsen and Gonzalez, as well as a handful of other Washington State Supreme Court Justices. Alas, I was a few minutes late again, and arrived just in time to hear Justice Debra Stephens introduce herself and say, "people ask about my accent. I come from Spokane." For some of the evening, she looked a little bit like she was spacing out, but then when she talked she was wicked smart.
Justice Gonzalez said he likes being in PT because he saw a bald eagle here once. WTF, no corny jokes or animal-bathtub-toy anecdotes?!

Justice Susan Owens has sort of a southern-ish or Indiana-ish accent, and looks exactly like a judge.

Justice Susan Owens     
Justice Sheryl McCloud, who lives in Kitsap and her husband works at Bainbridge High School, was wearing a brightly colored scarf and turquoise jacket, and has poofy curly hair, and didn't talk about her accent or have one.

Justice Mary Yu explained her accent: she grew up on the South Side of Chicago. She was a trial court judge in King County for 14 years. She also has a Masters in Theology.

Justice Madsen said she's been on the Supreme Court 27 years (due to seniority, she got to sit in the mayoral high chair front and center, and to delegate questions to other justices.) She's run 5 elections, she said, and has been to PT each time so we can know who she is and vote for her, flashing a likable-politician-who-knows-we-can't-resist-self-aware-politicians grin. She also repeated what she'd told the high-school kids about being inspired by the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings to "try and make a difference."

Justice Debra Stephens    

There were huge differences between the adult and high-school Q&As. The justices were way funnier and more likable with the kids, and the adults' questions involved a lot more narrative set-up. And were more boring.

Q: From a thin upright self-described "activist" the question was about income disparity, and the debt that prisoners have when they leave jail. What changes have you personally observed regarding legal financial obligations?
A: Madsen said, "important legislation recently passed." She said there are two "flavors" of fees: mandatory and discretionary, and the recent legislation struck down many mandatory fees where there is inability to pay.
Yu said to look at court funding; "courts should not be funding themselves" with fees. "It would be great to have advocates continue to raise the issue." She said Kitsap had a "day of understanding" when $4 million in fees were waived.

Q: From a scruffy, very tall, gray-haired man who said he has 15 years of street experience to deal with alcoholics, and asked the judges if they have the knowledge to deal with a drug injection site, and asked about how much information the court has on legal-injection sites, and also, a second question about lawyer discipline -- how they deal with lawyers who don't follow the rules.

Madsen passed this question to Stephens, who waffled a tiny bit and said, "often matters of law turn on issues of science and what is going on on the ground." She brought up Amicus Curiae, friends of the courts, who inform them as they try to answer the question that's in front of them. Some of the questions won't be court questions, they'll be questions for communities. Mr. Scruffy, still at the podium, said Harm Reduction policies have been very effective in Vancouver.
Then Owens spoke up about lawyer discipline. "Ultimately, we do that," she said. "One of the things that surprised me the most about coming on the court was the amount of discipline we do ... we just disbarred two people, week before last."

Q: A youngish bald guy in a baggy blue polo shirt with narrow horizontal white stripes only stood up "because nobody else was raising their hand." Again, so unlike the high-school Q&A, where twenty hands were in the air after each answer. This guy asked their opinions on decriminalizing. He didn't say, decriminalizing what. Just decriminalizing in general.
Owens took this one. "The legislatures or the city councils or county commissioners, they're the ones that set the penalties. The legislatures are also the ones that underfund the courts badly." She said as a judge she hated fining people. She said the little spotted owl, (listed Endangered in 1988, wrecking the logging economy) led to a lot more people in court, and she made a community service program in which a lot of people got jobs with the companies where they did community service. She said District and Municipal courts need more funds from the Legislature or they won't operate.

Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud
McCloud said, "we on the court, and lawyers, have an obligation to speak out on the betterment of justice." She said the issue of decriminalization of drugs was one of the key problems in increasing the numbers of black and other young men of color in our prisons. "Is that the best way to deal with an epidemic of drugs?" In 2012, she was on the ballot along with recreational marijuana, marriage equality, and Obama. She said since pot became legal there are less people in prison for pot but there has also been an increase in DUIs. Denver, Colorado, decriminalized hallucinogenic mushrooms last week, she added. "Do we want to imprison people for putting hallucinogens in their body? This is a big deal." She said, "maybe we want some stigma attached to [halluconogenic mushrooms]." She noted that marijuana is used by all segments of the population, but before it was decriminalized, people getting busted were mainly people of color and people in poverty. She said opioids mainly affect white people (or started out that way) because doctors who prescribed them didn't trust people of color so didn't prescribe them opioids. "Crack was mainly blacks, meth was mainly whites." She said, "I would encourage -- to keep race in the back of your mind -- when you're talking about decriminalization." 
Gonzalez contributed a quote from Anatole France: "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread." Cool. Even better than stupid jokes are quotes from French poet/journalists! I'm glad Swordfern endorsed this guy.

Q: Medical debt is a serious problem.
A: Yu said powerful lobbyists caused House Bill 1788 to get tied to medical debt. She said, talk to your senator, Keith Van de Wege, and ask him where he is on the issue of medical debt. And she suggested advocacy groups make information about debt forgiveness available at libraries and stuff, because hospitals sometimes don't make the information available. 

Q: Melody Eisler, director of the PT Public Library, said "we too care about outreach and equitable access," and asked what trends the judges are seeing in terms of cases that affect public libraries. Also, what are y'all reading? (Clap clap, went the audience, who may not have lots of good questions but know them when they hear them.)
A:  Gonzalez said, "one of my biggest issues is safety versus freedom in access." He worries about patrons accessing porn and harassing the staff. Another is use of technology in libraries in general; who owns the court record or legislative history? He said, librarians are generally highly educated and compassionate people who want the world to be a better place. As for books, he is reading "We Can't Breathe" (by Jabari Asim), and "White Fragility" (by Robin DiAngelo) thinking about how we talk about race and racism productively.
Yu said she's also currently reading "White Fragility." 
"I am too," said Melody Eisler. Haha! The entire Swordfern staff recently read it, too!
Yu said, as a woman of color, "I feel it's always my burden to talk about it." 
Stephens said she, too, is reading "White Fragility," and just read "So You Want to Talk About Race" by Ijeoma Oluo. And she likes Wallace Stevens a lot too. And she's interested in library science and educating people about how to source things; understanding where information is coming from and what its path is, and how easily misled we all can be, and how we have greater confidence than we should in some sources.
McCloud is not reading "White Fragility." She said she reads all day and doesn't want to read in the evenings, but is listening to Michelle Obama's book "Becoming" during her drive home. Before that she listened to "The Colfax Massacre and the Trail of Reconstruction." She was a history major. She is enjoying the Obama book because there's a lot less gory stuff, than the Colfax Massacre, she said.

Q: The McCleary decision. What were some hurdles for you? What can we expect to be different in our schools?
A: We could have told the legislature to implement it tomorrow, Madsen said, but one of the challenges of the job is respecting the balance of power. A challenge is to gain compliance from the legislature. 
Stephens had been looking spaced out but she came back to earth and said that most states have a provision about adequately funding K-12 education, but it's not really an enforceable right. But Washington decided it's an individual right that belongs to the student. There's been a lot of confusion about what the McCleary decision is and what the legislature is doing. And I will prognosticate only that McCleary wasn't the first and probably won't be the last lawsuit about that.
Yu said there's concern about the disparity in local income and local funding. "Whether it's a good response to lift the local levy lid or not, it's not our decision."
Gonzalez said, "everyone's going to pay more for the statewide education tax," but it will be allocated statewide in such a way that some schools will see more and some less. "We see a nationwide separation-of-powers problem right now ... How the branches work together and respect each other ... It's a civics lesson."

Q: The relationship between the corpus of the federal and state law. The person asking is a wildland firefighter and a transgender woman, and said, "as a state employee I may be discriminated against under federal law."
A:  Owens said, "we can't do very much about the federal courts or federal law. ... The US Supreme Court can't overrule us on (state law) issues.
McCloud said she hasn't thought as much about the intersection of federal and state law in sex or trans discrimination, but has thought about it a lot in terms of marijuana. Federal law is the supreme law of the land ... on the other hand, federal laws don't encompass everything, and states can make their own decisions about what to decriminalize or not. Immigration is a federal matter; can immigration officers commandeer state officers to do their bidding? Can the feds get the processes of the state, i.e. law enforcement, county officials, and jails? Hotly debated topic about whether that would be permissible. Our Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst has written her second letter to ICE because of immigrants being arrested in courthouses. We have to have citizens and noncitizens alike to feel comfortable coming to our courthouses ... like houses of worship, or schools.
Madsen said the federal and state supreme courts are "symbiotic," with state decisions, such as enhancing guidelines for emissions, guiding the federal supreme court's decisions about guidelines.
Yu said that LGBTQ families have certain rights. She said, "get a court order recognizing your parental rights, because I have no guarantee. ... It's a different pattern today."
Justice Mary Yu

Q: Another one on McCleary, from an old guy named Chester in a bright yellow hat.
A: I dunno, I stopped listening, except when Madsen said, "really, democracy works best ... if citizens get involved."

 For more info on the Washington State Supreme Court, and to see where I got all these awesome pix,  click this here doodad.