September 2020 Bar Bulletin
By Steven R. Rovig
Being sworn in has to be a memorable and somewhat daunting day for any new judge. But when you are Judge Judy Ramseyer and you are introduced at the induction ceremony by then-Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, Barbara Madsen, and when retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor administers your oath, the expectations are set remarkably high! But that’s getting ahead of the story so let’s start closer to the beginning.
Judy Ramseyer’s dedication to public service is bred in the bone. Her father was an early role model for her. She watched the important work he did helping others throughout his career with the YMCA. Judge Ramseyer did not immediately identify her own career path. But as a self-confessed “handful,” she decided she might be able to relate to adolescents. That in turn led her to a first job in a group home in Fairbanks, Alaska that primarily served Indigenous girls from the bush.
Something must have clicked, as what followed was a lifetime of advocacy for children as well as women and the disenfranchised. With the experience of a minus 40 degree Alaska winter under her belt, in 1976, Judge Ramseyer took a position with a Seattle area group home operated by the state’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Agency (JRA). That was a front row seat to see how the state of Washington too often failed juveniles involved in the system that were “locked up by the thousands.” Fortunately, with sentencing reforms brought about by the passage of the Juvenile Justice Act in 1977, the number of youth incarcerated in JRA institutions dropped dramatically overnight.
In an interesting coda to her early career, as a judge, Judy Ramseyer has faced the dilemma of sending young people to some of the same institutions she first encountered in the 1970s and 80s as a counselor. Those facilities are still far from perfect, but she has seen improvements. She believes that further progress will be made when the juvenile justice system fully embraces the brain science that demonstrates that juveniles are not, and cannot be treated like, “mini-adults”. To be successful, programs like the one she helped implement in the 1980s to treat juveniles sentenced for sexually motivated offenses must be based in that brain science and promote positive growth.
Judge Ramseyer earned a master’s degree in counseling while working with JRA. While she loved working in the juvenile justice field, she did not love the male domination of the corrections system. A light went on while she was working for the JRA in the halls of the Legislature. She met a number of young attorneys there and thought that a law degree might enhance her career. She applied and was admitted to University of Puget Sound (now Seattle University) in 1984, and completed her J.D., summa cum laude, while continuing to work full time.
While in law school but still working her day job with JRA, Judge Ramseyer opened a newspaper and saw an article that William L. Dwyer had been nominated for the U.S. District Court. She whipped out a yellow legal pad and sent him a hand-written letter asking to be his first law clerk. Call it destiny, fate or just plain good luck, but she got a call from Judge Dwyer saying he’d like to talk with her. Within two weeks he offered her a clerkship. She ultimately served at his side a total of seven years.
Judge Ramseyer would be the first to say, “Bill Dwyer changed my life.” He was, she says, “the most genuine, empathetic person” you could imagine. He had a way of making any person he talked with feel like “the most important person in the room.” Lessons she learned over the course of her years in Judge Dwyer’s courtroom that she applies in her own courtroom include hard work, an enthusiasm for brevity, and compassion.
Mike Wampold became a friend of Judge Ramseyer in 1994 when he externed for Judge Dwyer, whom Mike considers to be “probably the greatest jurist in Washington history.” Mike, a partner with Peterson Wampold Rosato Feldman Luna, says that Judge Dwyer would be “so proud, and not a bit surprised, to see Judy become one of the most respected members of the legal community.”
Following Judge Ramseyer’s first two years clerking for Judge Dwyer, she went into private practice with MacDonald Hoague & Bayless in Seattle, working in the areas of federal habeas corpus, civil rights and police misconduct. Fred Noland, a retired MH&B partner, said the firm “hit a home run when it hired Judy more than 30 years ago. Unlike many new associates fresh from law school, Judy’s maturity and empathy, gained from years as a social worker, and her lawyerly savvy, gained by clerking for Judge Bill Dwyer, were apparent.”
When asked about her proudest moment as a private attorney, Judge Ramseyer said, without hesitation, “getting a man off death row.” That man was Benjamin A. Harris, a paranoid schizophrenic. He and another defendant were found guilty of the aggravated murder of Jimmie Lee Turner in 1984.
Following Harris’s conviction, a habeas corpus petition was brought and U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan named a trusted attorney to serve as Harris’s guardian ad litem. That attorney was Judy Ramseyer. The legal proceedings were complex and protracted but are laid out in masterful detail in Harris By and Through Ramseyer v. Blodgett, 863 F. Supp. 1239 (1984). Ultimately the petition for habeas corpus presented 20 issues for the Court to decide. Judge Bryan found for Mr. Harris on all 20 counts and overturned his conviction. After his release, Mr. Harris lived voluntarily in a group home operated by Western State Hospital.
Over the course of 25 years in private practice, Judge Ramseyer litigated complex civil cases in state and federal courts. Perhaps then it is not surprising that she ran for and won a seat on the King County Superior Court in 2012. Her friend and former colleague, retired King County Superior Court Judge Barbara Linde, observed, “Judy’s contributions to the bench and the community piled up quickly and didn’t stop. Her civil practice skills were evident in her very first trial as a judge: a three-week long medical malpractice trial. Her long-standing interest in improving the lives of children and families fueled her commitment to her Unified Family Court assignments. Her early work in juvenile justice reform drew her to volunteer for heart wrenching juvenile offender cases.
Indeed Judge Ramseyer’s service as Chief of the Juvenile Court brought her early commitment to issues of juvenile justice full circle. That includes her involvement in the construction of the Clark Children & Family Justice Center. For anyone who experienced the decrepit conditions of the previous facility, the new Justice Center is impressively state-of-the-art. Judge Ramseyer believes the Center is an important part of a paradigm shift toward a behavioral health court model. The question is how to offer juveniles opportunities to grow, succeed, and find their way to a rewarding life. In her words, “Kids have promise. Kids can change. And these kids want the same things we all want.”
A long, successful career has generated awards and honors aplenty for Judge Ramseyer. They include the Washington Women Lawyer’s President’s Award; the WSBA Excellence in Diversity Award for chairing the first statewide Glass Ceiling Survey to document the status of women and people of color in private law firms; six years of service as a lawyer representative to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference Committee; Secretary of KCBA; and Past-President of the William L. Dwyer Inn of Court.
Judge Linde adds that in 2019 Justice Fairhurst appointed Judy to serve as Chief of the “Fire Brigade” of the Bench Bar Press Committee (BBP). “Composed of judges, attorneys and media representatives, the BBP works to identify, cooperate in, and resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise between the right to a fair trial and the public’s right to open courts and a free press. In Judy’s role as the BBP Fire Brigade Chief she is the point person for every judge in the state and every media person (in or out of state) that is seeking access to Washington courts.”
To top it off, Judge Sean O’Donnell observes that Judge Ramseyer was also recently elected President of the Superior Court Judges’ Association. As such she is the voice for 193 Superior Court judges in Washington, a uniquely challenging position. He says, “In her inviting, calm and kind fashion Judge Ramseyer has demonstrated she is the person you want in an important role like that.” He adds that, whether serving as SCJA President or when on the bench, Judy is an “active and intelligent listener, and one who cares.” She makes the speaker, “feel that they have been heard.”
Fred Nolan echoes those sentiments. “The people of King County are tremendously lucky to have ‘Judge Judy’s’ wisdom on our Superior Court bench.”
With a hectic calendar and many responsibilities, Judge Ramseyer clearly deserves some time away, perhaps seeing the world with Lily, her “fabulous daughter” who is a newly minted lawyer and about to begin a federal court clerkship. Sadly, COVID-19 has derailed any travel plans for now but it has left room for the occasional daydream about returning to Rome one day. There she imagines sipping a glass of wine in a sidewalk café and outlining the children’s book she intends to write. Who could blame her?!
Steve Rovig is a retired Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson partner, a past President of the King County Bar Foundation and the King County Bar Association, and a friend and admirer of Judge Ramseyer.