The Washington Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday about whether Superior Court judicial candidates must live in the county in which they wish to serve.
The court is reviewing a lower court’s decision that Christine Schaller is an eligible candidate for Thurston County Superior Court judge in the Nov. 6 general election despite living in Pierce County.
Two of Schaller’s opponents in the August primary had filed a petition challenging her eligibility, arguing that state residency requirements make her ineligible to run here. Schaller and her attorneys argued that the state constitution has no residency requirement for judicial candidates, and the constitution trumps state law.
Schaller works in Thurston County as a court commissioner hearing juvenile and family law cases. She was appointed by the Thurston County Superior Court bench. She and Assistant Attorney General Jim Johnson are on the ballot in the general election.
Johnson, primary opponent Assistant Attorney General Marie Clarke and private attorney Vicki Lee Parker of Olympia appealed a Kitsap County Superior Court judge’s ruling that Schaller is eligible.
Johnson and Clarke spoke Thursday in favor of requiring Superior Court judge candidates to live in the county where they are running.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, now a private attorney, argued to the high court that the state constitution establishes requirements for judicial candidates.
“This is, in effect, an action by disgruntled, losing primary candidates,” he said.
Johnson disagreed, telling the justices, “I am not a disgruntled or unsuccessful candidate.”
Talmadge pointed out that the constitution delegates authority to the Legislature to decide eligibility requirements for state District Court, Court of Appeals and Municipal Court judges – but not Superior Court judges or Supreme Court justices.
The constitution states only that Superior Court judges and state Supreme Court judges need to be admitted to practice law in Washington.
“The framers understood exactly what they were doing,” Talmadge said.
During Clarke’s presentation to the justices, she cited territorial laws dating to the 1800s that required Washington judges to live where they serve.
“To be elected for an office, one must be able to vote for themselves,” she told the justices.
With the Nov. 6 election just weeks away, it is unclear what, if anything, the Supreme Court will do if Schaller wins and justices determine she’s ineligible.
There is no timetable for a ruling.