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Washington State's Duty to Defend Officials Depends on Their Conduct

Washington state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders appealed the denial of attorney’s fees in a complaint filed against him by the Commission on Judicial Conduct (Commission) for misconduct in 2003. The appellate court held that no state duty existed to provide him with representation due to his violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct (CJC).

A complaint was lodged with the Commission after Sanders had ex parte contact with prisoners who had cases pending before the state Supreme Court; the contact occurred when he visited the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. During the investigation, Sanders requested state representation, which the Attorney General (AG) declined. When ethics charges were brought against Sanders he filed a declaratory judgment action, arguing that his state-provided defense was statutorily mandated. The trial court stayed the proceedings pending the outcome of the Commission’s ethics hearing, and Sanders sought discretionary review.

Prior to that review, the Commission ruled that Sanders had violated the CJC, and in 2006 the Supreme Court, on request by the trial court, affirmed the Commission’s findings and sanctions. Reconsideration was denied in 2007. The trial court then concluded that no duty existed to provide representation to state officials who had engaged in misconduct.

On appeal, Division II of the Court of Appeals for the State of Washington held that legislative intent allowed the AG discretion to limit representation of public officials pending a determination of whether they had engaged in unethical conduct. The appellate court held that misconduct had already been decided and affirmed in Sander's case, which precluded him from obtaining state representation or reimbursement for his legal expenses. See: Sanders v. State of Washington, 139 Wash.App. 200, 159 P.3d 479 (Wash.App. Div. 2, 2007).

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Related legal case

Sanders v. State of Washington