Pro-Life State Court Justices Have Free-Speech Rights, Too

RICHARD Sanders, the state Supreme Court justice who spoke briefly at a pro-life rally in January, may soon be kicked off the bench. Abortion-rights supporters ought to think twice about celebrating. In their zeal to gag a judge who staunchly supports free speech for all, Sanders' opponents threaten one of their own most cherished principles: individual liberty.

Here, in its entirety, is Sanders' 98-word statement delivered at the March for Life:

"I want to give all of you my best wishes in this celebration of human life. Nothing is, nor should be, more fundamental in our legal system than the preservation and protection of innocent human life. By coincidence, or perhaps by providence, my formal induction to the Washington State Supreme Court occurred about an hour ago. I owe my election to many of the people who are here today and I'm here to say thank you very much and good luck. Our mutual pursuit of justice requires a lifetime of dedication and courage. Keep up the good work."

There is no disputing Sanders' basic point. It is an accurate statement of the law. The principle of protecting innocent human life - an inalienable right - can be found in the 5th and 14th amendments of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, the staff of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct filed formal charges against Sanders last week. Among the "facts" it cited to support allegations of misconduct: "Respondent (Sanders)

appeared at the event carrying a red rose, a symbol identified with the `March for Life.' "

Carrying a red rose? How scandalous! Thank heavens the state commission has stepped forward to protect the public and the judiciary from such corrupt behavior.

State Sen. Lorraine Wojahn, D-Tacoma, who filed the initial charges against Sanders, says Sanders "took sides in a controversy (that) periodically comes before the court." It's true that judges should not comment on cases that could come before them. But Sanders did not comment injudiciously on a specific case. He did nothing to violate his oath to uphold the law. He simply stated, in general terms, his legal philosophy that supports the protection of innocent human life.

The problem wasn't so much what Sanders said, it seems, as to whom he said it. Wojahn, for example, criticized Sanders for "joining a crowd of political agitators." But the March for Life is not a "political organization" as defined by the code of judicial conduct - and its participants are no more agitators than their counterparts who march in support of abortion rights.

It is not just pro-life conservatives who worry that Sanders is the victim of selective persecution. Paul Lawrence, the pro-choice president of the American Civil Liberties Union who volunteered to defend Sanders, is concerned that he "is being singled out because of the particular issue, and that compounds the wrong." Amen, ACLU.

Justices on both the state and national Supreme Court have expressed deeply held personal opinions on legal matters and controversies for decades. One of this state's most revered jurists, the late U. S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, was an outspoken environmental advocate who appeared at green rallies while on the bench and received awards from the Sierra Club for his lifetime participation in the environmental movement. For committed, consistent champions of the First Amendment, Sanders' conduct should be no more troubling than that of Douglas.

Karen Cooper, executive director of the Washington chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, admits that judges "do have a right to their personal opinions, but I don't think it's appropriate for sitting judges to come out" on abortion. Oh, really? Then perhaps NARAL should refrain from issuing its 10-question survey of state Supreme Court candidates.

One of the survey's more probing questions asks: "What life experiences have you had that you believe would enable you to judge reproductive rights cases with empathy and compassion?" In 1992, incumbent state Supreme Court justice James Dolliver made his answer to that question public. "A member of my family has had an abortion," he told NARAL, "which I both encouraged and paid for."

The state Commission on Judicial Conduct has yet to file charges against Dolliver for judicial misconduct. Neither NARAL nor Sen. Wojahn has registered complaints. Nor should they.

In a state that elects judges, voters benefit from knowing where the candidates stand. Every judge has a right to speak - and every citizen the right to listen. Protecting the free-speech rights of opinionated individuals with whom we may disagree - including those who don black robes - is essential for a society that values liberty. Double standards of justice are deadly thorns. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: