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Justice Sanders’ Bum Rap Regarding African Americans

By Lem Howell – Special to The Times

IRONICALLY, Washington Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders has been unfairly targeted for simply stating the fact that a disproportionate representation of African Americans in our prison population is (obviously) the result of a disproportionate rate of criminal convictions.

I say “ironically” because Justice Sanders has done more than any sitting justice to bring fairness to our criminal-justice system, and he has done more to defend the rights of the accused regardless of race than any of his colleagues.

As a practicing lawyer acutely concerned by such matters, I was personally inspired by Sanders’ stirring dissent in a case involving an African-American motorist who was pulled over and arrested by Spokane police for an illegal lane change. By the time the police were done with him, he was sent to the hospital rather than jail because he was so badly beaten. Then he was charged with assaulting an officer.

His defense was that he was entitled to use reasonable force to resist an illegal arrest since an improper lane change is a civil infraction, not an arrestable crime. Nevertheless the trial court refused to instruct the jury as requested. Sanders wrote a wonderful dissent (State v. Valentine) pointing out that this instruction was required by hundreds of years of common law as adopted by this jurisdiction.

Nevertheless the majority overruled all these cases, and left Sanders standing nearly alone for the rights of this African American.

In another case he stood alone for the rights of an African American who was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for stealing $300 from an espresso stand armed with a finger in his pocket. (State v. Rivers) Sanders pointed out that such a sentence was unconstitutionally cruel because it was so disproportional.

And yes, African Americans are disproportionally represented in the ranks of those serving a similar sentence. Sanders took a lot of heat for this dissent. Later he visited the man three times in prison because he felt this was such a grave injustice. The man is still in prison. Sanders says he thinks of him often and hopes for clemency.

Sanders signed a dissent that would have reversed a conviction obtained by a prosecutor who excused the only African American from the jury in a case where the defendant was also African American. He would have put the burden on the prosecution to justify this decision for nonracial reasons. He did what he could, but he didn’t have the votes.

Responding to a rash of malpractice judgments against public defenders for not properly representing their clients, Sanders fought for three years, sometimes alone, to persuade the court to adopt a rule that would require trial court judges to only appoint lawyers for indigent criminal defendants (many of whom are African Americans) who meet minimum qualifications of experience and have adequate financial resources to get the job done. Ultimately he was successful, notwithstanding opposition from many prosecutors.

Justice Sanders is not afraid to tell the truth even when the truth is not popular or may be politically incorrect. He is deeply committed to our justice system and deeply cares about the legal rights of those who come to court.

As far as I’m concerned, he is an asset to the African-American community, and everyone else. Let’s be fair to this man who courageously fights for the rights of the unpopular and powerless.

Lem Howell is a civil-rights and personal-injury attorney in Seattle.

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