'Skirt judge' adds sizzle to appeals-court primary

While most state Court of Appeals races are as dull as reciting a chapter of the Revised Code of Washington, the Sept. 17 primary contest between former King County Superior Court Judge Jeanette Burrage and incumbent H. Joseph Coleman may well prove the exception.

Burrage, in her fifth judicial race, is a controversial property-rights proponent with about five years of experience as a judge.

Coleman has 26 years on the bench.

In the days when name familiarity can sway elections, Burrage's candidacy is something the judicial establishment isn't likely to ignore.

Her candidacy has tweaked the noses of some people in the legal community, in part because Burrage is said to have violated an informal agreement that discourages lawyers from opposing respected incumbent judges.

But earlier this year, Coleman wasn't going to run, having announced plans to retire.

Mary Alice Theiler, former King County Bar president and a member of the state bar Board of Governors, filed to run, but when Coleman changed his mind, Theiler withdrew.

Coleman has had to start campaigning to make up for his lack of name familiarity. He has raised $37,000 to Burrage's $3,700.

Burrage has campaigned frequently, winning a seat in the state Legislature in 1980 and a seat on the Des Moines City Council in 1993; campaigned and lost a bid for the State Supreme Court in 1994 and a bid for the Court of Appeals in 1995 (in the primary); won Judge Arthur Piehler's one-year unexpired term on the King County Superior Court in the 1995 general election; and won the four-year term for the same position in 1996. She lost it four years later by less than 1 percent.

In 1994, Coleman, who has spent few of his judicial years actively campaigning, did run against Burrage for a state Supreme Court seat ultimately won by Phil Talmadge. Coleman trailed Burrage with 13 percent of the vote to her 25.

To Coleman's supporters, he's the only logical choice for the Court of Appeals position, which pays $128,116 a year. He's had the job since Gov. John Spellman appointed him in 1984.

Burrage's backers believe it's time for new talent on the bench.

The role of appellate-court judges is to study and decide nuances of laws rather than hear trials. Three judges hear cases and decide whether the trial court has followed the law. Because the state Supreme Court takes few cases for review, the Court of Appeals is often the last stop. Coleman's résumé includes a stint as legal adviser to the Seattle Police Department. He also was the trial judge for the complex municipal-bond default case of the Washington Public Power Supply System in the early '80s. He has received top ratings from the King County Bar and the Municipal League of King County and has numerous endorsements, including nine from present or retired Supreme Court justices.

Burrage has fewer endorsements and was rated not qualified by the King County Bar, the same rating she received in other elections.

Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, who endorsed her in the Superior Court race, said he did so "because it was an open seat. Now she's running against an incumbent." Sanders called Coleman "able and experienced" and would not comment on Burrage.

Some in the legal community said Burrage is unfairly maligned, primarily because of her outspoken conservative views.

Seattle lawyer Mike Killeen said many lawyers are guarded about her "because she's unabashedly conservative." The hostility is coming from groups that would have opposed her political views anyway, Killeen said.

"We all know in the lawyer community that people don't know these judges anymore," he said. Burrage, he said, has two things in her favor, name familiarity and her gender — many people in King County, when in doubt, will cast a vote for a woman. But, "I think this is a race where you've got a very experienced judge against someone who's name is known. It's very fair to ask what her legal background is versus his."

While a King County Superior Court judge, Burrage had more affidavits of prejudice — requests by attorneys to change judges — filed against her than any other judge. Killeen, like attorney Todd Elliott, believes that had more to do with fear of Burrage's political views than any knowledge of her judicial capabilities.

In the Court of Appeals, it's more difficult to remove a judge as easily, a fact that concerns her opponents.

If Burrage had any quiet detractors, they joined a loud chorus of ridicule in 1999 after she told two female attorneys to wear skirts to court, an action that earned her the label "the skirt judge," and one she's defended ever since.

"I had never seen women attorneys for a jury trial in pants," she said. "Had the attorneys been men, I would have told them I wanted to have suits and ties." She'd like to take back her words, she said, and leave the dress issue alone.

Even Killeen, whose name she gave as a reference, said Burrage "is in another century" on that issue.

Coleman called the comments "reflective of poor judgment on her part and an indication of gender bias."

But Elliott said it should be a "nonissue" and obscures judicial talent.

Burrage said that of the cases she has presided over from 1996 to May 2000, only about six of 29 that were appealed were reversed by the Court of Appeals.

Since losing her bid for re-election to the Superior Court in 2000, Burrage has spent time at home with her husband and two boys, about a month working as a pro-tem judge and has handled an occasional legal case. She wants to be elected to work toward individual rights, rather than the rights of government, she said.

"There's been a trend to give so much deference to the legislative branch that they allow individual rights to be abused," she said. "In general, I want to interpret the Constitution to protect individual rights."

Coleman said that in those rare cases when a legislative law is unconstitutional, obviously "the Constitution trumps it. As judges it's our job to be open minded and interpret the law" as the Legislature intended.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com.