The Knucklehead of the Day award

Today’s winner is Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders. He gets the award for the following

Justice Richard Sanders, who sued the state to get documents about himself, could be awarded much more money because of a ruling he wrote recently for the state Supreme Court.

Sanders’ lawyers say new legal guidelines — ones the justice himself created — mean he should get far more than the $18,112 he was already awarded in his lawsuit. They contend the state should have to pay him something closer to $614,670.

Legal-ethics experts say Sanders probably should not have participated in the high court case because of its similarity to his own.

“You shouldn’t act as a judge if you stand to benefit from your own ruling,” said Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University and co-author of Judicial Conduct and Ethics.

Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University School of Law, said Sanders should have recused himself because the case allowed him to indirectly influence his own.

On Monday, Sanders said he hadn’t seen his attorneys’ latest legal brief and didn’t know they were arguing for more money based on the ruling he wrote. But he would have expected them to do so, he said, and doesn’t think it’s a problem.

He had pending litigation and he’s a lawyer himself. A ruling had potential personal impact for him. Am I the only legal laymen who sees a conflict of interest? In fairness, I have to state Sanders says he will turn over anything he gains to his attorney. Sounds like a good deal for his lawyer then.

Feel free to disagree with me, but I name Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders today’s Knucklehead of the Day. The rest of the Seattle PI article is beneath the fold.

“I absolutely think it’s just fine. It’s fair,” Sanders said. “I’m entitled to the benefit of the law just like everybody else in the state is.”

He also said he would not benefit financially because he agreed to pay his attorney, Paul Lawrence, any money he’s awarded.

In the Jan. 15 opinion, signed by three other justices and concurred with by a fourth, Sanders laid out new guidelines for judges who handle public-records cases.

They will help dictate how much the government should pay people for violating the state’s open records laws, which are supposed to make many government documents open to anyone who wants to see them.

The ruling came in the case of Armen Yousoufian, a businessman who sued King County in his years-long effort to get documents about the county’s two sports stadiums.

Writing the court’s lead opinion, Sanders found that judges should consider 16 factors when deciding how much government agencies should have to pay for not following the law.

Some factors, such as an unclear records request, might warrant a smaller penalty. But a delayed response, an unreasonable explanation or acting “negligent, reckless, wanton” or in bad faith are among the factors that should call for higher penalties, Sanders wrote.

Judges should also consider setting a penalty that will help motivate the agency to follow the law in the future, Sanders wrote.

Yet as the high court was considering the case, Sanders was — and still is — involved in his own years-long legal battle to get the state to hand over documents about himself.

He filed his lawsuit in 2005, after he’d gotten into ethical trouble for talking with residents at a state facility for sexually violent predators while some had pending court cases.

The justice hotly contested that he had done anything wrong and is still trying to pry from the state all documents related to the visit, including e-mails between state attorneys.

Sanders had asked a Thurston County Superior Court judge to award him $614,670, plus $190,178 in attorneys’ fees, for not fully complying with the law. The judge sided mainly with the state but ordered it to pay Sanders $18,112 in penalties and $55,443 in attorney’s fees.

Both sides appealed the outcome to the state Court of Appeals, which has yet to decide the case but promptly asked the attorneys for additional written arguments about the recent Yousoufian ruling.

In a brief filed last week, Sanders’ attorneys argued that how the state handled Sanders’ records request fits six of the new factors, written by Sanders himself, that mean the state should have to pay the justice a penalty closer to the amount he originally asked for.

On Monday, Sanders said his decision in the Yousoufian case was consistent with how he has handled other public-records cases: He has supported broad rights to public-records access and high penalties for government agencies that don’t follow the law.

He also said that in May 2006, he sought the opinion of the court’s ethics expert about whether he should participate in public-records cases, and she didn’t think he needed to remove himself from them.

Attorneys defending the state contend the recent Yousoufian ruling doesn’t mean Sanders should get more money, or that it should even apply to his lawsuit because it came too late.

“If there was any potential that it would have applied retroactively to his own (public-records) case, Justice Sanders should have recused himself from the Supreme Court’s consideration of Yousoufian,” they wrote.

Reiko Callner, executive director for the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, said she couldn’t disclose whether the watchdog agency is investigating.

But she said the commission doesn’t like to interfere with the judicial process, so it has “a general hands-off stance” when it comes to finding misconduct on the basis of judges’ rulings.

Chief Justice Gerry Alexander said he did not know Sanders had a pending public-records case of his own.

The King County Prosecutor’s Office, which lost in the Yousoufian case, is not planning to appeal the decision.

But spokesman Dan Donohoe said that when a justice who is suing the state rules on issues that could affect the amount of money it must pay, “there is a potential conflict of interest.”

Sanders, a justice for 13 years, is known for his frequent and fiery dissents, and for sometimes controversial actions. He was admonished for his 2003 visit to the sexually violent predators facility.

Years earlier, the Commission on Judicial Conduct voted to reprimand him for joining an anti-abortion rally at the state Capitol, but a panel of judges later concluded he was within his free-speech rights.

Just last November, his actions grabbed headlines when he stood at a black-tie dinner and shouted “Tyrant!” at the keynote speaker, then-U.S. Attorney Michael Mukasey.

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