Eight of the nine state Supreme Court justices gathered at the Montesano High School commons last week for a public forum.
The court travels to communities throughout the state. The forum on Wednesday, Feb. 21, was an opportunity for the justices to field questions from the public. The next day, the Supreme Court convened at the Grays Harbor County courthouse to hear oral arguments for three cases.
Earlier in the day, the justices had been scheduled to meet with students at Montesano schools, but snow the day before and a late start for students due to early morning conditions on Wednesday tightened the time line at little too much to allow for the visit. Some of the justices are planning to return to visit the students in the not too distant future, they said.
With snow in the forecast, the forum saw limited attendance. Only a couple dozen people attended the forum which saw eight of the nine state Supreme Court justices on hand to answer questions. Justice Charles Johnson was not at the forum.
Montesano Mayor Vini Samuel moderated the forum. Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst noted that the court could not answer any questions about cases currently under consideration, “or hypotheticals that sound just like the cases that we heard.”
The justices were asked about net neutrality. Specifically, the question asked what would happen if the state Legislature approved net neutrality rules and the governor signed those rules despite the Federal Communications Commission recently repealing net neutrality.
Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud said the court couldn’t speculate on what the governor would do. She noted several issues that could bring a state-approved net neutrality rule before the justices — first amendment issues, access to public services, a dispute of private control, or a dispute between providers and carriers.
“If a case like that comes to us, we’ll see which case it is, we’ll see which issue it is, and we’ll study the briefs,” Justice Gordon McCloud said. “If there is a constitutional issue involved, we would be the part of the government that can speak to that constitutional issue and authoritatively interpret the constitution and apply it to whatever rule comes up.”
Justice Charles Wiggins noted that another potential dispute would be if the state has the authority to issue such a rule.
“There’s another issue that’s kind of lurking here which is the power of the federal government versus the power of the state government,” Wiggins said. “There are certain powers that are given to Congress in the U.S. Constitution, so any law passed by Congress must stem from one of those powers… ”
The court also was asked about the “rule of law” versus the “rule of man.”
Justice Mary Yu said that much of what is seen as rules is shaped by individuals.
“There are nine of us committed to the concept of the rule of law,” Yu said. “At the same time, the rule of law is not fixed — it moves, it shapes, it bends, as we do, as society and as our human experience informs that rational thinking… I think we’re living in an extraordinary time where we get to see that on display.”
When asked how they separate their rulings from emotions, Justice Wiggins said he “(tries) very hard not to personalize any of our disagreements.”
“I wondered about this when I first got onto the court, ‘How do the judges really interact with one another when they’re behind closed doors — is it yelling and screaming, or is it rational discourse?’” Wiggins said. “I’m pleased to say I personally find it to be rational discourse.”
Other questions asked which cases were most difficult to hear, why the justices decided to run for their seats, why a gun tax is not unlawful, how important a speedy trial is to justice and about punishment of prosecutors.
The forum lasted about an hour.