In Washington’s Tri-Cities, an attorney on the losing side of a gay wedding flowers case is now seeking to unseat the judge who ruled against her. Early last year, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom ruled that the owner of Arlene’s Flowers broke the law when she refused to sell flowers for a gay couple's wedding.
That discrimination case currently awaits a hearing in the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, one of the florist's attorneys is running to unseat Judge Ekstrom.
Challenger Alicia Berry represented flower shop owner Barronelle Stutzman when newlyweds Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed sued her for discrimination for refusing to provide flowers for their 2013 wedding in Richland. In the case, Berry and co-counsel argued that Stutzman had a First Amendment right not to be forced to participate in a ceremony that violated her Christian belief that gay marriage is wrong.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson joined the case on the side of the gay couple to uphold the state's anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws. Ekstrom ruled in February 2015 that the florist's religious beliefs could not be used to justify treating certain customers differently.
The justices of the Washington State Supreme Court have scheduled oral argument on November 15 to hear Stutzman's appeal of the verdict against her.
Berry doesn't mention the high-profile case directly in her stump speech or on her campaign website.
"I wanted to run a positive campaign," Berry said in an interview Monday. "My issue is, I'm better qualified."
Berry obliquely raised the underlying issue in a radio ad.
"When we fail to protect the foundational right of freedom of conscience, we lose out on that first great freedom the Constitution was created for," she said in her ad's narration.
The political action committee for the conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington made the connection to the flower shop case in a mass mailing this past week to Tri-Cities voters. The mailed flier includes a glowering photo of the sitting judge and exhorts voters to, "Take a Stand. For Faith. For Freedom," in the judicial race. The mailing was an independent expenditure, separate from Berry's campaign.
Ekstrom’s campaign said judicial ethics rules forbid him from speaking about pending cases.
In a video voters’ guide statement, the incumbent dwelled in his experience and judicial philosophy.
"A judge has to uphold the law fairly and consistently and not legislate any personal agenda. This is what I do," Ekstrom said in his pitch to the electorate.
Berry is an attorney in civil private practice and former Benton-Franklin Counties Bar Association president. She graduated from the University of Idaho law school in 1998. Berry withdrew from the Arlene's Flowers legal team this spring when she filed to run to unseat Ekstrom.
Ekstrom is a former federal prosecutor who was appointed by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee to fill a vacancy on the Benton-Franklin County Superior Court bench in September 2014. Ekstrom then stood for election unopposed to complete the partial term in 2015. He is now seeking re-election to a full four-year term in Position 3.
Of the six incumbent judges up for election in 2016 on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench, Ekstrom is the only one with an opponent.