Talmadge to leave Supreme Court

OLYMPIA - Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge said he wants to be unshackled from political constraints on judges and won't run for re-election when his term expires this year. And until he does leave, he will push hard for statewide court reforms that he says are long overdue.

Talmadge, 48, announced in the state Supreme Court yesterday that he will be a one-term justice, though he didn't say just what he would do once freed from constitutional and ethical restraints that make civic activism difficult for judges.

He could run for governor in 2004 and has expressed interest in being dean of the University of Washington Law School. He showed little interest in running for the U.S. Senate or House.

"I have no regrets whatsoever about the service on the court," Talmadge said. "It is a wonderful institution, and wonderful people serve in it.

"Now I'd like an opportunity to do what all other citizens do in our state, and that's be active in the political process and the public discussion of issues."

Talmadge will be the first justice in 15 years to leave the court voluntarily after just one term. During 16 years as a state senator from West Seattle, Talmadge was known as a liberal. He championed sweeping changes in health-insurance laws and a rewrite of the juvenile-justice system.

Business groups opposed his election to the court in 1994, worrying that he would side with plaintiffs against businesses in legal disputes. But during his tenure he has been hard to label. He often sides with the state on criminal matters and has been reluctant to overturn legislative action.

Talmadge has been one of the most prolific writers on the court.

In 1998, he authored a majority opinion that found the voter-approved term-limits bill unconstitutional. He said the measure was an attempt to amend the constitution by citizen initiative. The constitution can be amended only if the Legislature votes to put a question to a public vote.

"Recognizing its political significance, we are not swayed in our analysis of Initiative 573 by the policy merits or demerits of term limits for officeholders," Talmadge wrote. "Our review here is limited to the issue of whether the voters acted in compliance with our state's Constitution in expressing their collective will."

The ruling made him unpopular among citizen activists who backed term limits but won him a standing ovation that year from lawmakers whose careers would have been cut short without the court's action.

He also wrote the majority opinion upholding the financing plan for Seattle's new baseball park in 1997, saying, "As a matter of law, the use of public funds to build the new baseball stadium does not represent unconstitutional aid to the Mariners. . . . The Taxpayers' arguments about violation of constitutional requirements for the imposition and handling of tax revenues are factually incorrect and without substance."

Though the Supreme Court was the last hope for opponents who wanted to derail the project, Talmadge mentioned the case yesterday as a highlight of his career.

"I'm saddened," Justice Charles Johnson said yesterday after watching Talmadge's announcement. "I think he brings an energy and intellect that raises the intellectual performance of all of us."

Talmadge's departure likely will attract a crowd of candidates for the open seat. Within an hour of his announcement, former Washington State Bar Association President Tom Chambers said he would announce his plans today. Talmadge said Chambers is a likely candidate.

Three other justices are up for re-election this year. Bobbe Bridge and Gerry Alexander have announced their re-election campaigns. But Chief Justice Richard Guy has yet to say what he will do.

The court has issued many close decisions, particularly on criminal issues. Talmadge's replacement alone could change the court's direction on some issues.

"I would have thought that Justice Talmadge would want to stay on the bench," said Justice Richard Sanders, who is most often at odds with Talmadge on the court.

"He is quite influential and outspoken in his beliefs and more often than yours truly, he is able to command a majority of the court to his position. For me, that would be most gratifying, but apparently he just has other priorities."

Johnson and Guy said yesterday they individually tried to talk Talmadge out of leaving the court. Guy said that of the nine justices, Talmadge was quickest to tell the court when it was violating its own precedents and asked some of the toughest questions during closed conferences, when justices debated cases.

Though Guy had also done some political work - once serving as counsel to the state House speaker - he says he doesn't understand the pull of politics. "I cannot think of a job where one has more prestige and more ability to make society better than this job," he said. "My highest aspiration has been to be a judge, and it's difficult for me to understand people who prefer the political context."

Talmadge had asked the Legislature this year to restructure the state court system to make it more efficient. But he has had little luck. He said yesterday he will push hard in his final months on the court to make changes that he says are necessary if the public is to have faith in the judicial system.

"If you're an average citizen, you want your case heard early. You want it heard fairly and impartially, and we're not guaranteeing that in the justice system for the state of Washington anymore," Talmadge said. "We've had six major systemic studies of the court system since 1990, and our response to the legislative effort to deal with court reform this last session is we're going to have another study. What a surprise. The study will say the same thing the previous studies said."

Talmadge also said that the $10 a day jurors are paid isn't enough to get people to serve willingly and that the courts are too complicated and costly for average citizens.

Guy has also been pushing for court reforms. He said that some of Talmadge's ideas may go too far too soon but that Talmadge is right to keep pushing for change.

Talmadge was vague about what he'll do when he leaves the court. He said he'd like to stay involved in teaching as he has done at the law schools of Seattle University and the University of Washington.

He also mentioned returning to private practice. Before being elected to the court, he specialized in appellate work.

And he hopes to be able to spend more time working on his hardball-pitching technique. He plays in a high-level amateur baseball league.

"If I could add three miles to my fastball, I think I'd have a shot at the Twins," he joked of the Minnesota major-league team that is struggling this year.