The Washington Supreme Court: What it Was Like Thirty Years Ago

The nine members of the Washington Supreme Court render collegial decisions. At least five of the justices must agree on the outcome of disputes brought to them. The authority of the court’s decisions, the process through which the decisions are rendered and the demands of fairness and reason all depend upon a sharing of responsibilities among the jurists. To understand the character of any particular court means understanding the unique mix of judges on that bench. This requires answers to the following questions: What differences in the behavior of the judges can be attributed to changes in the decisional structures defining the court; what differences are due to the give and take between and among the judges; and what differences do all of these make in the goals sought and achieved by the jurists? Figure 1 represents the framework used to seek answers to these queries:

The structure variables involve those institutional factors within which all of the judges must operate. In a broad sense, they define how the jurists go about their deliberations. The conference procedures and case assignments are examples of important structures. Also group size, jurisidiction and division of responsibilities (e.g., Chief Justice, seniority, pro-tempore) have an impact on how the judges make their decisions. For example, prior to 1909 and subsequent to 1969, the court either did not use “departments” or used them only for minor decisions. The absence or presence of this “structure,” then, would be a factor to weigh in any analysis of the nature of the state’s court of last resort.

The interaction process involves those variables affecting the social relations between and among the judges. The interaction process embraces those factors which are associated with the collective decisions of the court. The nature of communications, leadership, personal attributes that draw one judge to another or sepa- rate one from another and expertise and division of labor are among the interaction factors to be isolated and appraised. For example, the high disagreement rate between two judges could be explained by each possessing a widely different background and philosophy.

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Charles H. Sheldon, The Washington Supreme Court: What it Was Like Thirty Years Ago, 19 Gonz. L. Rev. 231 (1983).

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