Politics & Government

Billionaires pour money into state Supreme Court race

An ad lodged against state Supreme Court candidate Charlie Wiggins. Wiggins, the incumbent, is facing Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson.
An ad lodged against state Supreme Court candidate Charlie Wiggins. Wiggins, the incumbent, is facing Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson. Screencap

The race for Supreme Court Justice between incumbent Charlie Wiggins and his opponent Dave Larson has become a big-money affair in recent weeks, complete with controversial negative advertising and the full attention of several Washington billionaires.

In October alone, political action committees favoring Larson, a Federal Way Municipal Court judge, reported receiving $900,000 in donations, according to the Public Disclosure Commission, which tracks election spending.

It’s the most independent political expenditures on a judicial race since 2006.

One pro-Larson political action committee, Citizens for Working Courts, got $300,000 from Vulcan Inc., an investment company founded by former Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His fellow founder, Bill Gates, pitched in another $200,000, and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie Ballmer gave a combined $25,000.

The PAC is run by the pro-business group Enterprise Washington, which often works in legislative races but is making its first foray into state Supreme Court elections.

Michael Davis, president of the group, said many members of the organization and leaders in the business community have been dissatisfied with decisions from the high court, but before now hadn’t had a good “pro job growth” candidate to back.

“Some have finally said ‘now we have a really strong candidate in Judge Larson,’ ” he said.

Another PAC fighting Wiggins, Judicial Integrity Washington, is funded mostly by $350,000 from Camas billionare Ken Fisher and $50,000 apiece from Seattle Mariners owner John Stanton and Bellevue’s Kemper Freeman, the owner of Kemper Holdings, which includes Bellevue Square.

The committee is run by former state Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, who is critical of Wiggins for voting with the majority in the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary education-funding decision and the court’s 2015 decision to strike down charter schools as unconstitutional. He’s disagreed with Wiggins on plenty of other cases, too, he said.

Allen and Gates were some of the biggest backers of the citizen initiative that created the charter system in 2012. State lawmakers altered the charter system after the court ruling to keep it running.

Citizens for Working Courts has bought advertising that praises Larson. Judicial Integrity Washington has gone negative, releasing a TV advertisement that has drawn the ire of former Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and others in Washington’s legal community, who criticized it for painting Wiggins as enabling a child predator by penning a majority opinion in a recent case.

In May, the high court affirmed an appellate decision that law enforcement seized child pornography found on Michael Allen Budd’s computer without adequately advising him of his rights.

Budd’s conviction was overturned. Last month, he was arrested in Yakima on suspicion of attempting to solicit sex with a 14-year-old online, the Yakima Herald reported.

The advertisement says Wiggins “has a history of letting dangerous people do dangerous things” and let Budd go on “a technicality.”

In a letter to the big-money donors, Alexander and several legal leaders called the ad an “unfair” attempt to scare voters. The Oct. 18 letter defends the court’s ruling.

“The decision was rooted in upholding the constitutional right to privacy under Washington’s search and seizure laws,” it reads.

Tom said the advertisement is fair and accurate.

“They have one interpretation of (the Budd case) and we have another, but I think the facts are pretty clear,” Tom said. “Again, he was the swing vote who let out a guy who was convicted of child pornography.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Wiggins said the late cash dump is unfair because he can’t raise enough money to explain his ruling. He blamed the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United for opening the door to boatloads of independent spending in politics.

Wiggins described the PACs and their funders as wanting a more conservative court, and questioned why they are aiming to “take out a more moderate judge.”

“My record is a lot more than one single case, or two cases,” Wiggins said.

His campaign has raised about $215,000. Political action committees had spent about $12,000 in support of Wiggins until recently. But on Thursday, the Know Your Judicial Ballot PAC, mostly funded by the state’s largest teachers union, Washington Education Association, reported $66,666 for pro-Wiggins web advertisements.

The PAC is spending the same amount on positive advertising in favor of two other incumbent high court justices, Mary Yu and Barbara Madsen; a total of $200,000. The union, which has opposed charter schools and praised the McCleary decision, gave $120,000 for the ad buys, and the Justice For All PAC, run by the civil justice advocacy group Washington State Association For Justice gave the other $80,000.

Rich Wood, a spokesman for the WEA, said Wiggins “has stood up for kids in public schools in our state.”

Wiggins isn’t the only judicial candidate to face heavy political spending for an opponent this election. More than $313,000 in independent expenditures has gone to help Chief Justice Barbara Madsen’s challenger Greg Zempel, with about $83,000 of that coming from the state Republican party in October.

Tom said the infusion of money is a good thing since judicial positions often go uncontested.

“I think competition is good in elections,” Tom said. “I think the public is not served when you only have one person to vote for.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein