WA: Plan calls for election of state supreme court by district & reduction of court from 9 to 5; only 6 states elect by district

Plans originally introduced and killed in 2014 and 2015 to divide the Washington Supreme Court into districts and reduce the court from 9 justices down to 5 have now been combined. SB 5685 as amended would in effect merge SB 5686 of 2015 and SB 6088 of 2014.

  1. The state would be divided in 5 Judicial Districts made up of 2 congressional districts each (e.g. Judicial District 1 = Congressional District 4 & 5)
  2. The existing 9 justices would be allowed to serve out their term. When their term expires or if the office becomes vacant (death, resignation, etc.) their position may not be filled until the total number of seats is reduced to 5.

Proponents argued in last year’s hearings that the “intensely liberal” Seattle was skewing elections; 8 of the 9 justices in office in 2015 were from the western, more urban part of the state. Moreover some of the impetus behind the proposal seems to be anger over decisions by the state’s supreme court on K-12 education funding, including the supreme court holding the legislature in contempt.

A division of the supreme court into districts would require a constitutional amendment (“The judges of the supreme court shall be elected by the qualified electors of the state at large…”) A similar effort was made by conservative forces in Oregon in 2006 (Measure 40) through initiative rather than through the legislature; it failed with only 43% voting yes.

The vast majority of states do not use any district system: only 10 states make use of districts and even there in 4 instances (Florida, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Tennessee) justices must run in statewide elections even if they are required to reside or be appointed from a particular district. NOTE: Oklahoma has two courts of last resort one for civil matters (Supreme Court) and the other criminal (Court of Criminal Appeals).

  1. Florida: 7 justices appointed from 5 Appellate Districts. Each district is guaranteed at least 1 justice. Justices are retained in statewide yes/no retention elections.
  2. Illinois: 7 justices elected in partisan elections from 5 Judicial Districts. Retained in yes/no retention elections by Judicial District. The First Judicial District (Cook County) is entitled to 3 justices.
  3. Kentucky: 7 justices elected in nonpartisan elections from 7 Districts. Reelected by District.
  4. Louisiana: 7 justices elected in partisan elections from 7 Supreme Court Districts. Reelected by Supreme Court District.
  5. Maryland: 7 justices appointed from 7 Appellate Judicial Circuits. Retained in yes/no retention elections by Appellate Judicial Circuit.
  6. Mississippi: 9 justices elected in nonpartisan elections from 3 Supreme Court Districts (3 justices per District). Reelected by Supreme Court District.
  7. Nebraska: 6 justices appointed from and retained in yes/no retention elections from 6 Districts. 1 Chief Justice appointed and retained in yes/no retention statewide.
  8. Oklahoma: Supreme Court – 9 justices appointed from 9 Districts. Retained in yes/no retention elections statewide. Court of Criminal Appeals – 5 judges appointed from 5 Districts. Retained in yes/no retention elections statewide.
  9. South Dakota: 5 justices appointed from 5 Districts. Retained in yes/no retention elections statewide.
  10. Tennessee: 5 justices appointed from 3 Grand Divisions. Not more than two may reside in the same Grand Division. Retained in yes/no retention elections statewide.