Brief History of the Washington State Supreme CourtWashington has had three distinct Supreme Courts throughout its relatively short history. While part of the Oregon Territory (1848-1853) three justices, appointed by the President of the United States, served on the territorial Supreme Court. When not hearing appeals the three jurists rode circuit, presiding over important trials in three separate and widespread judicial districts which encompassed much of the present-day Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In 1853 the area north of the Columbia River and east to the Continental Divide was separated from Oregon and became the Washington Territory with its own Supreme Court composed of three (and later four) justices.
On October 1, 1889, the people of the Washington "Territory" west of the present Idaho line approved a state constitution, elected public officials and by means of an Act of Congress became a full-fledged member of the Union. Article IV of the new constitution, modeled after California's basic law, outlined the structure of the judicial branch. The Supreme Court was composed of five justices elected by the voters of the state. John P. Hoyt, Thomas J. Anders, T. L. Stiles, Ralph 0. Dunbar and Elmon Scott were the original members of the court. Hoyt had served on the territorial Supreme Court and was presiding officer at the convention that wrote the new state constitution. Stiles and Dunbar also were delegates to that convention.
The number of justices serving on the Supreme Court has varied from the original five to the present nine. Although the justices were no longer responsible for riding the trial court circuit as in territorial days, they continued to experience crowded dockets, necessitating an increase in membership. In 1905 the court was permanently expanded to seven justices and in 1909 the number was increased to the present nine. Between 1889 and 1909 all cases were heard en banc, with all justices participating. Between 1909 and 1969 most cases were heard by a department of the court, each composed of the Chief Justice and four associate Justices. Since establishment of the Court of Appeals in 1969 all cases are heard en banc.
Each justice serves a six-year term, with three submitting themselves to the electorate every two years. Vacancies that occur through resignation or death are filled by the Governor, but these appointees must gain approval of the voters at the next general election. Nearly two-thirds of all justices of the Supreme Court have been initially appointed to fill a vacancy, but with rare exception all appointees have been confirmed by the voters.
In 1907 the legislature established a direct nonpartisan election system for nominating judges, replacing political party conventions. Separate nonpartisan ballots were also authorized for the November general elections, removing judges from the political party lists. Except for a brief return to partisanship in 1912, the names of candidates for the Supreme Court have subsequently appeared on nonpartisan ballots.
Chosen by the other justices of the court for a two-year term the Chief Justice must be one of those next up for election, and usually is the senior of the three. The Chief Justice presides at all court sessions, handles administrative responsibilities, chairs the state judicial conference and represents the court and judicial system in many public appearances.
Some 8,500 cases are tried each year before the 143 judges of the Superior Courts of Washington State, the trial court of general jurisdiction. About 3,500 appeals are filed by losing parties claiming that the outcome was the result of error, either of fact or law, sometimes both.
Most appeals from superior court are decided after review by the Court of Appeals. This intermediate court has 16 judges serving in three geographical divisions who sit in panels of three to decide cases brought before them.
The Supreme Court has almost total discretion in determining which cases it will hear and decide, except that death penalty cases are automatically reviewed. A few cases involving new or important questions of law are accepted by the Supreme Court directly from superior court. Others are received on Petition for Review after having been decided by the Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court each year publishes nearly 150 final opinions, each decision representing lengthy and thorough research and consideration by all nine members of the court, working both together and individually.
Trial courts determine factual disputes within a framework of rules of law. Questions of fact decided at trial are not redetermined by an appellate court. A jury has listened to the testimony of witnesses, heard and seen the evidence, and reached its decision with instructions from the judge as to the law that must be applied to the facts. A trial court judge operating without a jury decides both the law and the facts.
The Supreme Court receives the typewritten record of the trial along with other court papers filed in the case, and the researched and printed arguments (briefs) of the attorneys regarding the disputed questions of law.
Prepared in advance, the nine justices gather for a public hearing in the courtroom with the lawyers, to hear their final arguments and perhaps to question them concerning the problems at issue. Oral argument usually is forty minutes, 20 minutes per side. A private conference of the justices follows, and the opinion is assigned for writing. If a decision is not unanimous, there may be both majority and dissenting opinions written.
Within the fact pattern of the particular case, the Supreme Court determines whether the proper constitutional provision, statute or common-law principle has been applied correctly. The judgment of the lower court is affirmed if no prejudicial error is found.
Decisions of the Supreme Court then become legal precedent for lawyers and judges in determining future disputes involving similar questions of law.
The Supreme Court also is responsible for administering the judicial system of the state. In that capacity it promulgates the rules for courts of limited jurisdiction (District and Justice Courts and Municipal Courts), for the superior courts and the appellate courts. Judicial rules also govern admission to practice, conduct and discipline for attorneys and judges.
The work of the court gives meaning and content to our concept of freedom and liberty, to the preservation of our constitutional rights, and to making a reality of our ideal of "Equal Justice Under Law."
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