The Washington Supreme Court is open to visitors when it meets at the Temple of Justice in Olympia throughout the year, although the gallery is seldom full.
So, several times a year, the court goes on the road — hearing cases on college campuses, reaching out to those who might not normally sit in.
“Whether it’s the commute, the intimidation factor, whatever, we don’t get a lot of people in Olympia,” said Justice Charles Johnson, the longest-tenured of the court’s nine justices. “This is part of our outreach effort to humanize the court and provide a civic opportunity for people to see how court works.”
On Thursday, the court will hear three cases in Tacoma at the University of Puget Sound, where Johnson went to law school. At the end of each session, the justices will take questions. The topic can be anything except the cases just heard.
“Even then, they can ask how the case got before us,” Johnson said. “It might make the court less closeted. What I’ve found is there’s a general misunderstanding about us and what we do.”
Johnson lives in Gig Harbor, was born in Tacoma and is quick to point out that at age 13 he was delivering The News Tribune. He also worked at a Tacoma lumber mill as he was getting through law school.
“My dad was a lawyer and in third grade I made the announcement that I wanted to be a lawyer,” Johnson said.
That path led him to a Supreme Court appointment in 1991.
Like most of the justices, Johnson also teaches. What excites him about the visit to UPS are the two panel discussions on Wednesday.
“Those discussions are primarily with students, and we talk about what we do, who we are. Most have some interest in the topic. I think their knowledge is deepened when they have the chance to talk to the author of a decision rather than reading it in a book.”
Taking the Washington Supreme Court on the road began in the mid-’80s, when the Temple of Justice underwent massive renovations from 1987-89.
“When the court building was shut down, we were ousted and without a home,” Johnson said. “Everything was traveling at that point, and court was held in high school gyms, whatever facilities we could find.
“That was enough of a positive experience that we decided to continue.”
This pleased then-Justice James Dolliver, who served from 1976-1999 and first urged the court to hold occasional sessions on the road.
The last time the court visited Tacoma was in May 2005 at Tacoma Community College. The closest it’s been since then was in 2009, when it was at Puyallup’s Pierce College.
Brad Reich, an associate professor of law and ethics at UPS, knew about the court’s road history when he started a campaign to bring it to campus several years ago.
“Once a year, one of my classes visits court, and I went to one of their traveling sessions,” Reich said. “I was convinced it was an underused opportunity.”
UPS, incidentally, no longer has the law school that produced Charles Johnson in 1976. Twenty years ago this fall, UPS sold it to Seattle University.
But interest in law and justice remains strong on campus. Originally, the panel discussions were to be held in the UPS rotunda, which seats about 120 people. The first two days after the visit was announced, it was clear more room was needed.
Those discussions will now be held in the Schneebeck Concert Hall, which seats 500.
“We’re having two panels because some of the justices will be attending classes that day,” Reich said. “Between the 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. panels, justices will switch out. We’d love to develop an ongoing relationship with the court.”
If nothing else, Johnson said, the road trips provide people with a degree of comfort.
“Walking into any courtroom is a scary experience,” he said. “I’m comfortable there, but most citizens are intimidated. Being more public about what we do, who we are, how the system works — that instills confidence.”
If You Go
Supreme Court panel discussions and sessions
Where: Schneebeck Concert Hall at University of Puget Sound
When: Wednesday, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. panel discussions; Thursday, 9 a.m.-11:45 a.m. and 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m. court sessions.
How to reserve space: Call 253-879-6013 or go online to tickets.puget sound.eduLarry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/larue