The death penalty, political influence on the selection of judges and affordable housing were a few of the topics that staff and students of Port Townsend High School asked Washington State Supreme Court Justice Susan Owens about during a “Friday salon” at the school Oct. 27.
Owens was the first elected female judge in Clallam County and served 19 years as district judge for western Clallam County in Forks, Washington. In 2000, she became the seventh woman elected to the state Supreme Court and has served in that position for the past 17 years.
Owens said she’s often asked why she wanted to serve on the state Supreme Court.
“In 2000, there were two open seats, two retirements on the court, and I had been a judge for 19 years, and I thought I needed a career change and I didn’t particularly like any of the candidates that had announced at some point,” Owens said.
“So I asked all my judge friends if they would run for the Supreme Court, and almost to a person, everyone said, ‘We don’t want to run, but if you run, we’ll help you.’ So I had a cadre of judges – elected judges, I might add – across the state who helped me, as my grassroots, get elected to the court in 2000,” she said.
“I came from a town that has one stoplight, so it was not an easy task to do,” she said of her hometown, Kinston, North Carolina.
The state Supreme Court has nine members. Every two years, three of the nine justices are up for re-election. Owens has defended her spot on the bench over three elections and 12 opponents in her 17 years.
Owens said that cases in district or superior courts could be appealed to one of three courts of appeals, which are located in Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane.
Owens said the state Supreme Court was different in that “we take the cases we want. We don’t have to take anything. We don’t have to hear anything. We choose each month the cases that we’re going to hear,” Owens said.
The only exception to that are death penalty cases, which come directly to the state court and bypass the court of appeals, as mandated by state law, because of the serious nature of the penalty.
Owens said there have been two death penalty cases during her time at the court.
“Those are by far the hardest cases,” she said.
Justices often select cases if two courts of appeals have conflicting opinions about the case, in order to settle the law. Also, the justices might select cases if a lower court deems a certain law to be unconstitutional, or if the case has a high profile and substantial public interest, such as cases about gay marriage.
This process of selecting a case is called “petitions for review,” Owens said.
“We have about 1,500 petitions for review a year. We take about … we’ve been averaging about 110-125 the last couple of years. The U.S. Supreme Court, theirs is called the ‘petition for writ of certiorari.’ They get about 10,000 requests a year and they take about … less than 70 cases a year,” Owens said.
To have their case reviewed by the state Supreme Court, the biggest hurdle someone with a case has to clear “is getting accepted for review. It’s actually my favorite part of the court,” Owens said.
It’s a responsibility the justices take seriously, she said.
One PTHS freshman asked if Owens thought the state death penalty was constitutional. Owens said she initially was of the opinion it is not, but decided to follow precedent and changed her mind.
Another student asked what her most interesting case has been.
“That’s hard for me to pick for the Supreme Court because we don’t take cases that we don’t find interesting,” Owens said, adding that one of her favorite cases was about someone who used false internet spam advertising to sell $39.95 booklets titled “How to Get Rich on the Internet.”
“But nobody ever got a booklet,” she said. The 9-0 case found that law against such spam was not a violation of free speech.
A freshman girl asked why Owens decided to get into law as a career.
“My father was a lawyer … my mother worked for the chief of police. So [law] was a subject of a lot of dinnertime conversation. I just grew up with it,” Owens said.
By the time she was in junior high school, Owens decided to go into law, “and my father said that I probably shouldn’t do that because I would just be a legal secretary. And he didn’t mean that as an insult to me; he was just reflecting the reality of the time. I just happened to be of the age where they were beginning to let women into law school … I pushed through,” Owens said.
CHANGE OF OPINION
“My answer, originally, was I never thought I would be able to be a judge because all the judges were older white males … that has changed because we now have six members of the Supreme Court out of nine that are women. We’ve joined the profession in enough numbers that we can pretty much have anything we want open to us,” Owens said.
Another freshman girl asked if Owens ever had a divisive case that changed her opinion on an issue. Owens said the court has had plenty of 5-4 decisions and that justices do change their minds at times.
PTHS teacher Tom Gambill asked for Owens’ opinion regarding how Republicans refused to consider U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Merrick Garland.
Owens said there are several vacancies in various courts that are not being filled because of political fighting, but she said that Washington state courts have a bipartisan system that works well.
“These spots need to be filled, and it’s just a shame in my view that politics is always at the bottom of it,” Owens said.
One junior boy asked if there is one particular subject area that she finds difficult.
“It would be science stuff,” Owens said. “We have a joke saying if we had been good at math and science, we’d be doctors and not lawyers. It’s technical stuff that we’re not familiar with. We know about your constitutional rights and the Miranda warnings and all that. That’s just easy.”
She cited the Hirst decision about water rights as an example, saying it “was really technical stuff … we get to it eventually. We read and read,” Owens said.
A freshman girl asked where Owens stood on immigration. Owens said it is an issue for federal law, not state law, but “I think the DACA law should be re-enacted,” she said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law.
WHAT TO CHANGE
A junior girl asked what part of government Owens would like to change.
“I can’t say it out loud. The press is here,” Owens joked. “I will say generally, though, I’ve always had a great deal of faith in our democracy and the three branches of government and the checks and balances. It’s worked. I have great hope that it will continue to work.”
A freshman girl asked what Owens’ most tragic cases have been, besides death penalty cases.
“We have a lot of really criminal cases that are really not pleasant to read,” Owens said, citing one case involving sex abuse against children.
Another freshman girl asked how the affordable housing issue could be solved. Owens said she doesn’t know.
“It’s of concern everywhere you go. Except my hometown, which I think has plenty of cheap housing. It has no jobs, but it has plenty of cheap housing. It’s disturbing – I was just in Seattle last week – to see the [homeless] camps. And now that the weather’s turning colder, to see people that are living on the streets. It’s very disturbing … I’m not sure money’s the total answer. Port Townsend, in my view, has always been an expensive place to live. Remember, I represented poor people. They weren’t living in nice Victorian homes. And Forks [Washington] is a relatively inexpensive place to live. And Seattle’s going to be like Manhattan, if not already,” Owens said.