Pekelis Knocked Off Bench After 6 Months -- Sanders Takes Property- Rights Road To Victory In Heated Race

Maybe it was Gov. Mike Lowry, or the pro-property-rights vote. Maybe it came down to which candidate got listed first on the ballot.

Or maybe it all came down to the simple, mainstream-sounding name: Richard B. Sanders.

Whatever the cause, Justice Rosselle Pekelis and her supporters were stunned by the swift slap of defeat last night, as voters removed her from the state Supreme Court after only six months in office.

It was the first time in five years a sitting Supreme Court justice had been unseated and, perhaps more significantly, was one of the most partisan judicial races Washington voters have ever seen.

Lowry had appointed Pekelis, a former appellate-court judge, last spring to replace Justice Robert Utter. But Sanders, backed by Republicans and property-rights advocates, aggressively pursued the seat as the conservative alternative.

A Bellevue land-use attorney, he equated civil rights with property rights and portrayed his opponent as a defender of government. This past week, he broadcast ads that zeroed in on Pekelis' connection to a governor whose own popularity has sagged.

"I told people what I believe, that we need an independent judiciary and someone to protect the rights of the people," Sanders, 50, said. "That's my belief and that's what I'm going to do."

Pekelis, the choice of top Democrats and moderate Republicans, highlighted her experience on the bench and honed in on Sanders' involvement with Referendum 48, the property-rights measure. She argued that he was too opinionated to be worthy of a judicial post.

Among Sanders' top contributors were the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Washington Association of Realtors, proponents of Referendum 48.

While that measure was defeated, supporters were heartened that Sanders will join the high bench, where some legal skirmishes over property rights end up.

Sanders said he felt personally vindicated after the King County Bar Association listed him as "not qualified," despite extensive legal and appellate court experience.

With $150,704, Sanders outdistanced Pekelis in fund-raising but nearly two-thirds of that was in the form of a loan by his wife.

It was Pekelis' first taste of defeat in 14 years in the judiciary. The 57-year-old jurist had won re-election to the Court of Appeals, Division 1, and King County Superior Court.

"It defies logic," Paul Elliott, her campaign manager, said. "We feel we ran a good campaign that we should have won."

Pekelis had picked up 12 of 13 newspaper endorsements in the state, support from much of the legal community and key Republicans.

But some supporters were worried that she have trouble simply because Lowry appointed her. Some of his recent appointments have flopped with the public.

One King County Superior Court appointee, Debora Juarez, was defeated in the September primary after critics accused her of being unqualified. Bernard Heavey, appointed to the Superior Court in Skamania and Klickitat counties, resigned in May amid complaints by local attorneys that he was unfit.

Chief Justice Barbara Durham figures Pekelis fell victim to the phenomenon that swept away Keith Callow in 1990 - name unfamiliarity.

Absent information about judicial races, voters tend to look for something in the name, Durham said. And Pekelis, which is of Russian descent, isn't so easy to pronounce as Sanders.

"A lot of us were concerned about her name, and she knew that," said Durham, a Pekelis supporter.