A Ballotpedia analysis of Washington state Supreme Court candidate campaign finance and court case outcomes between 2013 and 2022 shows that progressive candidates and causes dominate in the Evergreen State.
The online political encyclopedia coded large samples of data – both campaign donors and court case parties and amici – according to progressive versus conservative ideological leaning and 28 different sector or policy categories.
"Nonpartisan elected offices are always tempting research opportunities for us," explained Josh Altic, Ballotpedia's director of research, in an email to The Center Square. "So many voters are used to seeing elections through the party lens that when you exclude those party labels from the ballot, there is an inevitable information gap to fill. This project was quite rewarding as it approached that gap from both ends so to speak: the political inputs of campaign funding and the end result of the court's rulings."
The study notes that it "does not seek to establish any sort of causal relationship between the campaign finance and court ruling outcomes data sets. Rather, the two data sets were compiled and analyzed in this study because they both give contextual information to the public about the political inputs and government effects of Washington State Supreme Court justice selection."
According to Ballotpedia's findings, more than 99% of significant contributions toward the campaigns of winning state supreme court candidates were progressive sources. The situation was reversed when it came to the other side of the political spectrum, with 97% of significant contributions to losing state supreme court candidates coming from conservative sources.
Ballotpedia's study also found that a plurality – more than 43% – of significant contributions came from sources in the legal field, broken down into the subcategories of lawyer, criminal justice, criminal defense, personal injury and trial bar. This category saw winners dominate the losers by a difference of 97% to 3%.
A similar situation played out in terms of court case outcomes, with nearly three-quarters – 74% – of all court case parties and amici categorized as progressive receiving favorable decisions. Those court case parties and amici coded as conservative received favorable decisions 14% of the time.
The top five categories, according to Ballotpedia, of parties and amici regardless of ideology with the lowest rate of favorable decisions were the Second Amendment, abortion, First Amendment/media, education and business.
Native American tribes, LGBTQ+, law enforcement, trial bar and child welfare interests were the top five categories of parties and amici regardless of ideology, with the highest rate of favorable decisions.
Not surprisingly, reaction to Ballotpedia's analysis fell along ideological lines.
"The results are unsurprising given the lack of statewide representation on the Supreme Court," Chris Corry, director of the Center for Government Reform at the free market Washington Policy Center think tank, emailed The Center Square. "The old adage 'all the votes you need to win Washington State you can see from the top of the Space Needle' rings true regarding funding for those elections, as this data shows."
Corry, a state lawmaker from Yakima, has said he would take a leave of absence from WPC when the 60-day legislative session begins on Jan. 8.
"The Center for Government Reform has long recommended amending the State Constitution to allow for district elections for Supreme Court justices," Corry continued. "This would provide more appropriate representation on our State Supreme Court. The results of this research show that district elections would bring much-needed representational balance on the court."
Northwest Progressive Institute Executive Director Andrew Villeneuve agreed with Corry, but only to a certain degree.
"No informed observer of the Washington State Supreme Court would find Ballotpedia's data surprising," he told The Center Square in an email. "Washington has one of the most progressive high courts in the country, reflecting Washington's strong Democratic lean, decades of Democratic control of the governor's mansion, and the local right wing's lack of interest in recruiting credible Supreme Court candidates."
Villeneuve went on to explain why, in his view, this is the case.
"Unlike at the federal level, justices are elected and appointed, not just appointed," he said. "The governor fills vacancies that occur partway through a term, but those appointees must face voters to remain on the bench. The court's membership is thus in the hands of the people. And in recent years, all the governor's picks have been returned to the Supreme Court by voters. When the right wing has put up a challenger to one of Governor Inslee's appointees, the challenger has not been successful."
He pointed to conservative Justice Richard Sanders being voted out in 2010 and replaced with challenger Charlie Wiggins, who has since retired and been replaced by Grace Helen Whitener, who was re-elected to the high court in November 2022.
"It's important to remember that at the federal level, we have a U.S. Supreme Court that is heavily dominated by the right-wing and mired in corruption," Villeneuve concluded. "Having a well-functioning, progressive high court here in Washington state helps make our multilayered legal system more ideologically balanced."