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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."

Vulcan, Gates, Ballmers Join List Of Wealthy Washingtonians Trying To Alter Supreme Court

Aidan Wakely-Mulroney
Flickr -
File photo of The Temple of Justice in Olympia, Washington.

Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Bill Gates, and Steve and Connie Ballmer are among a growing list of wealthy Washingtonians who want to change the makeup of Washington’s Supreme Court. They are the top donors to a new political action committee called Citizens for Working Courts.

The PAC raised $550,000 in just six days this month with the biggest check -- $300,000 -- coming from Vulcan. Gates put in $200,000 and the Ballmers $25,000. All three were also major donors to a 2012 charter school initiative that the Supreme Court later found unconstitutional.

Other donors to the new PAC include Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith, the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

Michael Davis is president of Enterprise Washington, the pro-business group behind the PAC. He said Citizens for Working Courts will spend its money in the coming days in an effort to elect Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson to replace Justice Charlie Wiggins.

“There’s certainly a whole set of issues that many in the business community are concerned about and feel that the court has just moved too far away from kind of the mainstream of the state and become too activist in its decisions.”

Davis said the PAC is preparing a pro-Larson TV ad that will hit the air soon.

A second PAC called Judicial Integrity Washington funded by other wealthy Washingtonians, including southwest Washington billionaire Ken Fisher, is already running an attack campaign against Wiggins.

For his part, Wiggins said it’s taken his campaign almost 10 months to raise just over $200,000.

“What’s unfortunate is their opinion is shouted loudly because they are incredibly wealthy,” Wiggins said. “I hope the voters of Washington will not be confused by messages that are being sent and be able to see this for what it is, which I think is an attempt to purchase a seat on the court.”

According to Davis, this is the first time that Enterprise Washington has set up a PAC to engage in a non-legislative race. In addition to the TV ad, Davis said the PAC will run online ads and send mailers to voters.

Asked why the PAC is focusing on the Wiggins-Larson race, Davis calls Larson the strongest of the challengers running for the Washington Supreme Court this year.

“If there was a lot more time and a lot more interest and a lot more resources available maybe there’d be other races to get involved in, but [we] wanted to tackle one race this year,” Davis said.

Three of the nine members of the Washington Supreme Court are up for re-election next month.

Besides Wiggins, they are Chief Justice Barbara Madsen who’s being challenged by Kittitas County Prosecutor Greg Zempel and Justice Mary Yu who faces a challenge from Gonzaga Law Professor David DeWolf.

Besides charter schools, the court’s role in the ongoing school funding case known as McCleary has also become an issue in these races. The Supreme Court retained jurisdiction in the McCleary case and has imposed a $100,000 per day contempt of court fine on the state for not providing a plan to fully fund schools by 2018.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."