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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Inslee Appoints King County Judge Mary Yu To Washington Supreme Court

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has appointed the first openly gay justice to the Washington Supreme Court.

Mary Yu is a King County Superior Court judge who will also be the first Asian-American and the first Latina on the state’s highest court.

Yu, 56, replaces two-term Justice James Johnson who stepped down this week for health reasons. Johnson was viewed as a lone conservative voice on the high court.

Inslee, a Democrat, introduced Yu at a ceremony in the Supreme Court chambers in Olympia. “Her appointment can be something all Washingtonians can celebrate and embrace,” said Inslee.

Yu has been a King County Superior Court judge for 14 years. Prior to that, she was Deputy Chief of Staff to the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

In her remarks, Yu anticipated Republican criticism that she hails from a Democratic stronghold. “And while I am from King County, I want each of you to know I am truly and earnestly committed to serving all the people of the state of Washington,” said Yu.

Yu praised her predecessor, Johnson, who attended the announcement. Afterwards he described Yu as a “wonderful lady,” but questioned Inslee’s choice. “I retain my concern … that this court still is not balanced and does not represent all the people of the state. And I’m not sure that this is a positive step,” said Johnson who notes that most of the court’s nine justices are from Puget Sound and none are considered conservative.

Yu still has to be formally sworn in. Her appointment to the high court runs until the end of this year. There will be a special election in November to decide who will serve out the remaining two years of Johnson’s term. Yu is expected to run for the seat.

Bruce Hilyer, a former King County Superior Court judge, has already announced his candidacy. He previously ran for the Supreme Court in 2012 and lost.

Appointed Justices Get Electoral Advantage

Historically, gubernatorial appointments to the Supreme Court have an advantage in the election. However, that’s not always true.

In 1995, then-Governor Mike Lowry appointed Court of Appeals Judge Rosselle Pekelis to fill a vacancy on the court. Nonetheless that November, Bellevue lawyer Richard Sanders defeated Pekelis in the special election. Sanders, who established a reputation as a libertarian and frequent dissenter on the court, went on to serve until 2010 when he was defeated.

More recently gubernatorial appointments to the high court have gone on to win their elections.

Justice Steven Gonzalez was appointed in late-2011. Then-Governor Chris Gregoire named Gonzalez as the second Latino to serve on the state’s highest court. He replaced former Chief Justice Gerry Alexander who was forced to retire at age 75. Gonzalez later won a six-year term to the court.

Before that, Gregoire appointed Justice Debra Stephens of Spokane, a Court of Appeals judge, in December of 2007 to replace retiring Justice Bobbe Bridge. Stephens also went on to win her election.

Appointment Won't Re-Make Court

Yu’s appointment isn’t expected to dramatically shift the balance of the Washington Supreme Court or change the outcome of most cases. However, for conservatives Johnson’s departure from the court before his term expired is viewed as a significant loss.

Yu joins the court at a time when it has retained jurisdiction in an ongoing case over public school funding. Just this week, the legislature filed a response to a court Order from January that said the state is not moving fast enough to fully fund education.

The Washington Supreme Court has nine members who serve six-year terms.