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Washington State Supreme Court Justice Reprimanded For Visiting Prisoners

Citing an ?appearance of partiality,? a nine-member substitute special panel of the Washington State Supreme Court admonished Justice Richard B. Sanders for his having visited McNeil Island Special Commitment Center in 2003 where he spoke with sexually violent predator prisoners and accepted documents from them.

The panel was concerned that at that time, there was a case pending before the Court challenging the constitutionality of the sexual predator law. Prosecutors lobbied to have Sanders recused, and he eventually disqualified himself. In a later interview, Justice Sanders noted that in Washington, judges are encouraged to visit prisons; he even received continuing judicial education credit for his visit. Prisoners had invited the Court, but the other justices declined -- even warning Sanders not to visit. ?The whole objective of this facility is supposed to be to treat the prisoners, and I thought it was a valuable opportunity to ask the prisoners how they were doing. I thought I gained from the experience, and now I?m being punished for it,? he said. But the special panel held that his admonishment was justified by the ?clear, cogent and convincing evidence? of his behavior.

Justice Sanders spoke with 20 prisoners, one of whom was a party to the pending case. This became the focal point in his reprimand by the unanimous special panel of State Court of Appeals justices appointed to sit en banc. New York University legal ethics Professor Stephen Gillers commented, ?What Justice Sanders is charged with doing is not even debatably acceptable. Talking to a litigant about a matter within the scope of litigation is wholly out of bounds, and it?s the job of the judge to police that.? See: In re Disciplinary Proceeding Against Sanders, 145 P.3d 1208 (Wash. 2006).

A long time libertarian, Justice Sanders has been the most consistent supporter of individual rights and freedom from state repression. Often times he has been the lone vote against measures such as Washington?s ?three strikes? law.

Other source: New York Times.

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Related legal case

In re Disciplinary Proceeding Against Sanders