In Olympia’s Temple of Justice, which houses the Washington Supreme Court, Gonzaga law degrees hang in the chambers of two of the court’s justices.
Justice Mary Fairhurst graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law in 1984. Justice Fairhurst, who also received her undergraduate degree from Gonzaga, comes from several generations of Gonzaga grads, including a father who was the university’s Vice President of finance and, later, a professor in the philosophy department.
Justice Fairhurst was elected to the Washington Supreme Court in 2002, creating the first female majority in the court’s history. Before her election, Justice Fairhurst worked for 16 years in the state attorney general’s office, specializing in criminal justice, transportation, revenue, and labor. She helped craft a constitutional amendment to increase the rights of crime victims, organized the first statewide conference on domestic violence, and has organized conferences on youth violence and on how communities deal with sex offenders.
Justice Fairhurst is also a past president of the Washington State Bar Association—the youngest attorney, the first person from the public sector, and only the second woman to hold that post. Throughout her career, according to her official biography, she has worked to enhance opportunities for women and minorities in the legal profession and to ensure access to justice for state residents of low income. She currently serves on the Supreme Court’s Gender and Justice Commission and on an Access to Justice Board committee.
Justice Fairhurst received the Myra Bradwell Award from the Gonzaga University School of Law Women’s Caucus in 1999. The award, named for an Illinois woman originally denied the right to practice law because of her gender, is presented annually to an outstanding alumna of the law school whose work has made a difference in the lives of women. Justice Fairhurst also sits on the School of Law’s board of advisors and was recently elected president of that body.
Justice Barbara Madsen, another member of the School of Law’s board of advisors, graduated from Gonzaga Law in 1977. Before voters first sent her to the state’s high court in 1992, she worked as a public defender in King and Snohomish counties, developed a child abuse initiative as a special prosecutor in the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and served as presiding judge for the Seattle Municipal Court, where she helped develop a committee to comprehensively address domestic violence and sought to increase workplace diversity.
Justice Madsen has also received the School of Law’s Myra Bradwell Award. Among other honors, she has been recognized as a “Very Important Woman” by the Thurston County Women’s Symposium and twice received the Washington Women Lawyers Vanguard Award. Justice Madsen serves as chair of the Supreme Court’s Gender and Justice Commission. She also chairs the Supreme Court’s Circulation Committee and the Court Personnel Committee and is co-chair of a number of other committees. Justice Madsen is a member of the American Judges Association, the National Association of Women Judges, and the Judicature Society.
In 2002, Justice Madsen wrote the majority opinion in a court ruling that struck down Washington state’s “felony murder rule,” which for decades enabled prosecutors to seek a murder conviction in cases where death was the unintended result of a crime. As a result of the court’s decision, hundreds of cases in the state will likely be sent back to superior courts for review.
Recently, in separate phone conversations, Justices Fairhurst and Madsen reflected on their legal educations at Gonzaga and the profound influence of law school in a lawyer’s life.
With two Gonzaga Law School alumnae on the state’s high court, have you noticed whether the two of you share a common approach or philosophy? Is there a discernible “Gonzaga brand” of jurisprudence?
Justice Fairhurst: Our responsibility as judges is to look at each case. We don’t bring a particular policy or philosophy to our work, because our commitment is to the law.
Justice Madsen: I can’t say it’s exclusive to Justice Fairhurst and me, but it is remarkable that we both share a very strong sense that we have to give back to the community. We both feel strongly that improving the quality of justice is one goal we are obliged to undertake as members of the court. I think it’s a hallmark that we both feel compelled to address these issues as well as the daily work of the court.
Was there any particular experience at Gonzaga, a certain course or faculty member, that helped influence your career and the work you’re doing on the court?
Justice Fairhurst: I loved my time at Gonzaga. I appreciated the strong Jesuit tradition and the focus on public service. Both influenced my decision to dedicate my career to public service. I think Gonzaga recognizes the importance of the role that the lawyer plays in society, and the call to service and leadership that is made of lawyers; it prepares its students for that responsibility.
Justice Madsen: I’ve thought about this a number of times—how one’s law school career shapes one’s future career in the practice. I’m convinced that your legal education and the underlying legal principles that you’re taught are extremely important. At Gonzaga, we learned to apply legal principles to even out the imbalance that exists in society. There’s an imbalance in power, in resources, and in abilities. It was always emphasized that our job is to even out that imbalance and to use law as a way to alleviate suffering and bring about justice where those crying out for justice have no ability to bring it about for themselves. That shaped how I view law as a discipline. When I face issues on this court, I frequently realize I’m drawing on attitudes and philosophy that I learned from my law school education. And it has shaped me in ways I can’t even begin to articulate.
Justice Fairhurst: What I appreciated was the dedication of Gonzaga’s faculty and administration to the development of ethical, professional, service-minded lawyers who went out to make a difference. It was sort of a theme that permeated the law school to educate the people the world needs most. So there was great support for the students and being sure they were well prepared in the responsibilities they were assuming when they became lawyers. It was really important that [graduates] were smart and hardworking and ethical and compassionate.
I took a number of courses from Professor John Maurice and Professor Jim Celto-Vache, and both were very influential in my legal education. Both are still at the school. From Professor Maurice, I took a lot of “code courses.” When I was in the attorney general’s office, and now as a judge, we deal with statutes all the time, so that learning has served me well. From Professor Celto-Vache, I took a seminar in my third year on jurisprudence. So those were cornerstone courses.
You both sit on the School of Law’s board of advisors. Apart from your official obligations as Supreme Court justices, why do you think it’s important to stay connected to your law school?
Justice Fairhurst: I think it’s part of our responsibility to be involved with the development of new lawyers, both during their education and training and after they become lawyers. For me, I have great loyalty and respect for Gonzaga, so it’s important for me to stay in touch. While I work with all of the law schools in the state, it’s my pleasure to serve as president of the board of the law school from which I graduated.
Justice Madsen: I have been amazed at how supportive Gonzaga is of its graduates in terms of networking and finding opportunities. I think the law school has provided wonderful opportunities, and they’re only there if you stay connected. That’s important for any student, whether they go on to a public service position like mine or a job in the private sector. It’s something every student should take advantage of.
I’ve really been impressed with the legal community at Gonzaga because they are so supportive of one another. It just seems like the faculty are genuinely concerned that everyone who goes through Gonzaga comes out successful—”successful” being defined as living a full and rich life in which the practice of law is a part, but not a whole. My sense is that if the students are open to it, there’s a great deal of support to be had. And it’s never too late.
On the bench, you both see new and not-so-new lawyers at work every day. What do you think law schools are doing well, and what do you think they could do better?
Justice Fairhurst: I think law schools do a very good job explaining the substantive law, but I think it’s up to the individual student to determine how much he or she gets the practical or clinical component. I think it’s especially important to have that practical understanding as the job market becomes saturated. In addition to the nuts and bolts, I think law schools could sometimes do a better job of alerting students to the ethical considerations they might face. I think it is important that new lawyers have mentors or safety nets to really help them so they don’t get caught unawares and end up facing ethical charges over rules they had no intention of breaking.
Justice Madsen: I’ve read a number of articles from social science journals that show how law school turns perfectly normal human beings into people with mental problems. I think that’s because there’s a disconnect between the ideals that drove you to law school and what you come out believing is important in life. And the competition in law school is probably the most corrosive. And to what end, really? To be number one? To be the best? That fosters a real disconnect. The majority of people who enter law school have an altruistic or idealistic notion of what they can do with a law degree, and I think that’s beaten out of them.
The choices you make coming out of law school are really predicated on how you view the law, and what you think you can accomplish with this law degree. What you see from people coming out of a school like Gonzaga is that they are choosing positions that aren’t going to bring them great wealth or fame, but that are going to give them great satisfaction because they can make a real difference in real people’s lives.