The year 2020 kicked off with two firsts on the Washington Supreme Court. On Jan. 6, Debra L. Stephens was sworn in as chief justice, the first judge from Division Three of the Court of Appeals to serve on the Washington Supreme Court as well as the first woman from Eastern Washington to do so. Raquel Montoya-Lewis was also sworn in as a new justice, becoming the first Native American to serve on the state’s highest court.
This shift of the bench was triggered by the departure of Mary E. Fairhurst, who announced last year that she would be retiring as chief justice after 17 years with the Court and three years as chief.
Stephens was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2008 by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire, and she was unanimously elected by her fellow justices in late-2019 to serve as the 57th chief justice for the remainder of Fairhurst’s term; in November, the Court is scheduled to vote once more on chief justice to serve the full four-year term.
The WSBA member magazine, NWLawyer (soon to return to its former title of Washington State Bar News) reached out to Stephens to get her perspective on the new role, the role of the Court, the state of the judiciary, and a little about her interests outside of the Temple of Justice. The full interview (spoiler warning: Stephens reveals her fondness for EDM and other guilty pleasures) will appear in the February issue; until then, enjoy this sneak peek of our conversation with Washington’s new chief justice.
What is your leadership vision for the Court and legal profession?
My vision is for a justice system that is accessible, inclusive, and fair. Courts are a vital part of our community, and the chief justice can set the tone for the entire judiciary by being a committed and engaged community member. That means listening, showing respect and appreciation, and always giving my best.
What are Washington courts doing that is great, leading-the-nation work?
Washington has long been a leader in the equal justice movement, dating back decades to the Supreme Court orders creating the Access to Justice Board as well as the Minority and Justice and Gender and Justice Commissions and others. The public and private partnerships we have built around these efforts are truly remarkable. Additionally, the recent work of local courts in organizing legal financial obligation “reconsideration days” has inspired other courts across the nation. And, of course, Washington is receiving national attention for our work in addressing implicit and explicit bias, such as through the Supreme Court’s adoption of General Rule 37 (jury selection).
What would you say to those who view the Supreme Court (both federal and state) as becoming increasingly enmeshed in politics? Do you agree?
It can certainly feel like courts are increasingly enmeshed in politics, considering media attention focused on the presumed political leanings of judicial appointees or United States Supreme Court justices. But I think it is important to understand, especially with respect to state courts, that our jurisdiction is broad, and this necessarily means courts will be involved in deciding politically charged and divisive issues. That doesn’t make judges political. Our responsibility is to write decisions that clearly explain the law and its application to each case, whatever the politics of that case may be.
What can the legal community do together to bolster the public’s trust and confidence in the legal system?
We should do as much community service as we can to show people that lawyers and judges truly want to make a positive difference in society. I believe that is the reality of the legal community, but we could do more to bring it to life every day, in both big and small ways.