Justice shares personal story

OLYMPIA - Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland had been looking for a way to tell the public her secret. Last night, she chose statewide television to share what she had long thought of as "one of the worst things that ever happened in my life."

In an interview on TVW, the state-government cable TV channel, Ireland told for the first time publicly of getting pregnant as an unmarried college student and giving her baby up for adoption.

"I went out of state, as girls in the '60s sometimes did, and came back three months later without my little girl," Ireland said in the hourlong interview that aired last night. (The program repeats tomorrow at 10 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m.; it is also available on the station's Web site, www.tvw.org.)

Ireland said she told her 35-year-old story because it has helped shape not just her personal life but her life on the bench, too.

"Since I knew I was not a perfect person, I was better able to sit in judgment of other people who were not perfect people," Ireland said in the interview.

Her friends and some of her colleagues know the story. When Ireland, who had been a King County judge for 15 years, was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in 1999, her daughter was in the court chambers and helped her mother into her new judicial robe. But there was no public explanation about how Ireland, who everyone knew as childless, was accompanied that day by a grown daughter, Emily Cantrell, a New York City artist.

"I was just developing my relationship with my daughter and I didn't want any public scrutiny at that time," Ireland said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It was a very fragile relationship at that point in time."

She said Cantrell was traveling yesterday and could not be reached.

Ireland said she went to tape the "Inside Olympia" show Wednesday thinking it was time to tell her story.

She had been urged to go public by her mentor, Patricia Murrell, director of the Leadership Institute of Judicial Education, a Memphis-based organization Ireland has been involved with. Murrell talked to Ireland about the importance of "teaching and giving back" and how the story could help others.

Before the interview, she at first hinted to host Denny Heck, president of the cable channel, that she had something she wanted to talk about. After some prodding, she told him the story but said she wasn't sure she would bring it up on television.

During the interview, Heck asked Ireland about her family. She said nothing of the pregnancy, the adoption or reunion.

"I thought she had made a decision she wasn't going there, that it was just too hard," Heck said yesterday.

Later, though, he asked Ireland which of her experiences "contributed most to preparing you for sitting in what is a very lofty position of considerable authority."

She talked of the important influence her parents had on her. Then, unprompted, she told her story.

"What one learns by life is very important. I've made mistakes in my life. When I was a college girl I got pregnant out of wedlock and I made a decision - the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my life - to give birth to her and give her up for adoption."

The girl was raised in Colorado. For 32 years Ireland and her daughter had no contact. They reunited three years ago.

"For a long time that was one of the worst things that ever happened in my life," Ireland told Heck. "But I came to see it as not the worst thing that happened in my life because I felt I had given somebody else something, a priceless gift."

Ireland told the story in a strong voice, but appeared to tear up. So did Heck, the adoptive father of two boys.

"I give thanks every day for the young women who have the courage to make the decision you did, otherwise I wouldn't have any children. So thank you very much for that," Heck said as he reached toward Ireland's hand.

"I'm a pretty maudlin guy, as people who know me can tell you, but I was completely unprepared for the emotion of the moment," Heck said later.

Heck's "Inside Olympia" has become the place for politicians to tell their stories. Heck, a former legislator and chief of staff to former Gov. Booth Gardner, started TVW with a mix of state and corporate funding in 1995.

Gardner appeared earlier this year to talk for the first time about his struggles with Parkinson's disease. Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park, told emotional and chilling stories of her time as a medical volunteer in Vietnam during the war.

Ireland said she chose to talk to Heck in part because she respects the work he does "putting a human face" on politicians, but also because the TV interview would allow her to tell her story without it being taken out of context.

"You always wonder how public you should be when you're a public servant," Ireland said yesterday. "I think if, when I was that age, I knew there was a woman who had been highly successful in her life who had been through the same experience, it would have been really, really helpful to me."

And she expanded on the story a little. She said she left the University of Washington when she was 22 years old, in 1965, for a home for unwed mothers in Colorado. There the baby girl was put up for adoption.

"If I had attempted to keep my daughter as a single mother in 1965 I would have been stigmatized and so would she," Ireland said. "Ten years later it might not have been that way at all, but things were different in 1965.

"I think we made the right decision for the time, but there was always a pretty big hole there," she said.

Ireland never had any other children.

She waited until her daughter turned 22, and then Ireland listed her name with a Colorado agency that helps match up birth parents and adopted children.

"That was my age when I had her, so I was hoping that she would be old enough to understand my point of view at that age," Ireland said.

But it was another 10 years before her daughter also filed with the agency and mother and daughter were reunited in 1997.

At the time, Ireland's parents were both ailing. Her father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Her mother had a brain tumor and died last year.

"I am so very grateful that my daughter and I were reunited at a time when my parents were part of the process. And that was a real close call," Ireland said.

David Postman is the Seattle Times' chief political reporter. His phone message number is 360-943-9882. His e-mail address is dpostman@seattletimes.com.