Up Close with the WA Supreme Court

Up Close with the WA Supreme Court

The Washington Supreme Court is coming to Seattle University School of Law, providing the campus community and the public an opportunity to see the court up close, in action, in real time. 

The court will be on campus February 22-February 23, with the first day filled with meetings with students, staff and faculty. On day two, justices will hear oral arguments for three cases. The court proceedings are open to the public.

The visit is part of the Traveling Court outreach program, which brings the court’s work across the state, typically visiting two to three locations a year. Justices demonstrate how oral arguments work in the state’s highest court and talk with community members about the judicial branch of government.

The Traveling Court began in 1985 while the Temple of Justice on the state Capitol campus was undergoing earthquake safety renovations and justices had to find other locations to hear public oral arguments. The program was so popular that when construction was complete the court decided to continue “traveling” a few times a year. COVID-19 safety precautions stalled the program, but justices resumed the Traveling Court in October, the first since February 2020, when they visited Gonzaga University. 

Justice Mary Yu, a distinguished jurist in residence at the law school, called this a “special year,” marking the arrival of new Dean Anthony E. Varona in July and celebrating the law school’s 50th anniversary. 

Justice Yu says she and her fellow justices benefit as much as the students and community members who attend. 

“It is an opportunity for us to educate and to be educated about how the public perceives the court,” Justice Yu says. “The question-and-answer sessions give us insight into what people are thinking about the court and what their concerns might be regarding our court system. Finally, coming to a law school enables us to learn directly what it is that students are studying as they prepare to become lawyers.”

Justice Yu is the namesake of the Justice Mary I. Yu Endowed Scholarship, honoring the diversity and representation she brings to the justice system as the first Asian, first Latina and first openly LGBTQ+ member of the state’s highest court. The scholarship was established to aid underrepresented students at the School of Law, especially women of color.

On Thursday, justices will hold court on campus, hearing oral arguments in three cases that pertain to sexual assault on college campuses, whether a criminal defendant accused of the most serious crimes can be held without bail and whether Gov. Jay Inslee’s residential eviction moratorium exceeded his emergency authority during the COVID-19 pandemic. The decisions they ultimately reach will have significant real-world impacts.

“We are thrilled to be hosting the Washington Supreme Court for its oral arguments and related events at the School of Law,” says Varona, who was recently appointed as the co-chair of the Supreme Court’s Bar Licensure Task Force. “The court leads the nation not only in its unprecedented diversity but also in its pathbreaking civil rights and criminal justice decisions. It is no wonder that the court is celebrated nationally as well as internationally for its forward-looking and innovative jurisprudence.”

The visit will also be a homecoming for the two justices who graduated from the law school, Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson, ‘76, a distinguished jurist in residence, and Justice G. Helen Whitener, ’98. Justice Whitener, Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis and Justice Debra L. Stephens will appear remotely.

Interacting with students is Justice Johnson’s favorite part of bringing the court to Seattle University.

“I’ve always enjoyed my involvement with students and have felt it important to engage in explaining how our process works, the principles and values the profession embraces and to answer questions from students,” Justice Johnson says. 

Justice Whitener has long valued introducing the public to the court process as a Pierce County Superior Court judge and a Street Law teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. When she first took a seat on the Supreme Court bench in 2020, she was excited to participate in the Traveling Court, further exposing the public to the workings of the “third branch of government.”

“We're getting off of our pedestal and going out and interacting with the community because it's their court,” Justice Whitener says. “It’s truly important that they see the court, how it operates and see that we're real people, very much like them.”

The court proceedings will take place in Sullivan Hall, Room C5 and livestreamed and recorded by Washington’s Public Affairs network, TVW. Though cameras and video recorders are generally allowed, the court asks that no flash, other lights or noisy mechanisms be used during the hearings.

Written by Andrew Binion

Wednesday, February 22, 2023