Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Justice Steven Gonzalez: An American Tale

Profile / Justice Steven Gonzalez: An American Tale

December 2020 Bar Bulletin

By David A. Perez

Due to circumstances that prevented us from including a contemporary Profile feature, we are reprising the February 2012 Profile of Washington Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez in honor of his election — by his court colleagues — to serve as the next Chief Justice of the court.

The call from the governor came on a Sunday afternoon. After hanging up, Steven Gonzalez walked down to the basement where his two sons were spending the afternoon.

“I just got off the phone with Governor Gregoire,” Gonzalez said. “She wants to appoint me to the State Supreme Court.”

His son, Isaac, looked up at him with a big grin. “I’m going to go tell the neighbors!”

“Not so fast,” Gonzalez told him. “The governor wants to make the announcement on Tuesday, so we have to keep this to ourselves until then.”

“Well ... can I at least tell my friends that I get to meet the governor?”

Humble Beginnings

Steven Gonzalez grew up in Claremont, California, with his sister, his brother and his mom. Gonzalez recalls that he first learned justice from her knee “or some other joint,” as he tells it. During high school, Gonzalez cleaned park bathrooms to earn cash to buy clothes and save for college. “I had a lot of time to reflect on what might lie ahead of me,” Gonzalez recalls. “And I think the restrooms were a very good reason for me to want to go to college.”

Growing up in Claremont, it wasn’t hard to find a college nearby. And so, when it came time to apply, Gonzalez simply walked down the street to the nearest college he could find. “I walked right into the admissions office and asked the lady behind the desk if I could apply for admission. She said, ‘No, you can’t. This is a women’s college.’ Well that was news to me. So, I walked down to the next college, which just so happened to be Pitzer. Lucky for me, they were accepting male applicants.”

At Pitzer College, a private, liberal arts school (which features an announcement of Gonzalez’s appointment on its web page), Gonzalez set out to learn as much about the world as he possibly could. For instance, although Gonzalez’s family is Mexican- American on his father’s side and his mother’s family is from Eastern Europe, his was an English-speaking household. But he quickly branched out linguistically.

Gonzalez decided to major in East Asian studies and spent his sophomore year at Waseda University in Tokyo, where he studied Japanese. He later studied advanced Japanese at the International Christian University in Tokyo and won a Rotary International scholarship to study economics at Hokkaido University in Sapporo. Gonzalez became so fluent in Japanese that he eventually won first place in a Rotary Foundation speech contest, where he delivered his speeches in Japanese. He later learned Chinese during his studies at Nanjing University and taught himself Spanish after college.

After graduating, Gonzalez decided to pursue a law degree at the University of California– Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. During law school, he met his wife, Michelle, who was in the first year of a four-year program, working on a dual degree with Berkeley and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

From Private Practice to Public Service

After Gonzalez graduated in 1991, he moved to Washington to start his legal career. Michelle, now assistant dean at the University of Washington School of Law, stayed behind in Berkeley to finish her degrees, which meant they had to maintain a long-distance relationship for three years. Gonzalez landed a job with Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson, where he practiced international business law for five years.

In 1996, Gonzalez left the firm to join the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, where he worked in the Domestic Violence Unit, focusing on elder and child abuse cases. The following year, in August 1997, Gonzalez accepted an offer from the Department of Justice to become an assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District of Washington.

Gonzalez’s caseload included child prostitution, hate crimes and firearms offenses. But his biggest case involved an international terrorist: Ahmed Ressam, the so-called “Millennium Bomber.” Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles in 1999 while trying to smuggle explosives from Canada into Washington, where he intended to drive south and detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Gonzalez was part of a team that successfully prosecuted Ressam during a 19-day trial in Los Angeles. The team received the U.S. Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service, the highest award available for an assistant U.S. attorney.

Throughout his early career, and still to this day, Gonzalez has been heavily involved in the community. During the 1990s, Gonzalez served on the board of the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington, where he chaired LBAW’s Judicial Evaluation Committee. And in 1996, Gonzalez graduated from Leadership Tomorrow, a highly selective civic leadership program for the Puget Sound region.

After nearly seven years as a prosecutor, Gonzalez saw an opportunity to serve his community in a different capacity.

Moving to the Bench

In 2002, a vacancy opened up on the King County Superior Court. Although he described his job as a federal prosecutor as “the best job I had ever had,” Gonzalez was encouraged to apply for the opening by his friends and colleagues. In March 2002, Governor Gary Locke called to offer Gonzalez the appointment to serve as a trial judge in Washington’s largest jurisdiction. He accepted. Later that year, Gonzalez won a contested election and was re-elected in 2004 and 2008.

During his 10 years on the Superior Court bench, Gonzalez was very active in judicial administration. He served on the Interpreter Committee, the Pro Se Committee, the Security Committee, and the Washington State Bar Association Court Improvement Committee.

Since joining the bench, Gonzalez has been repeatedly recognized for being one of the hardest working trial judges in Washington. In 2009, Washington Women Lawyers gave Gonzalez their “Vanguard Award” and the Hispanic National Bar Association gave him its “Latino Judge of the Year” award. In 2011, he received three separate “Judge of Year” awards from the Asian Bar Association of Washington, the American Board of Trial Advocates, and the Washington State Bar Association.

After his tenure on the Superior Court bench, where he earned the respect of his colleagues throughout the state, Gonzalez was again encouraged to apply for a new vacancy. This time, the vacancy was on the Washington Supreme Court.

Appointment to the Supreme Court

With Justice Gerry Alexander’s pending retirement (effective December 31) creating a new vacancy on the Supreme Court, Gonzalez began to consider whether he should apply for the appointment. Knowing that the process would be difficult, and that he would have to run a statewide election in 2012 (as Justice Alexander’s term was expiring), the decision was not easy. With Michelle’s support, Gonzalez applied for the vacancy last May.

The appointment process took Gonzalez across the state. “I met with a variety of individuals and groups across Washington,” Gonzalez recalls. “I met with community groups, chambers of commerce and labor organizations, educators and students, media groups, engineers, and senior citizens, just to name a few. The whole experience helped deepen my appreciation for the rich diversity of our state and our need to serve all of Washington.”

Gonzalez also spent the summer getting evaluated by the various bar associations and other organizations throughout the state, receiving an “Exceptionally Well Qualified” rating for the Supreme Court — the highest possible — from the Joint Asian Bar Association, the King County Correctional Officers Guild, the Loren Miller Bar Association, QLaw, the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association, and the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington.

Finally, on November 15, Governor Chris Gregoire made it official: she was appointing Gonzalez to the Washington Supreme Court.

Looking Ahead

It’s impossible to replace Gerry Alexander. But if the governor were forced to choose a replacement, it would have been difficult to find one with as much support as Gonzalez. Few candidates for any office have had as much bipartisan support as Gonzalez has received. Two of the candidates for attorney general in the November election — Democrat Bob Ferguson and Republican Reagan Dunn — have endorsed him, as have both gubernatorial candidates, Rep. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Rob McKenna.

Not only that, but public defenders, prosecutors and, of course, judges from around the state signed letters urging the governor to appoint Gonzalez. In fact, Justice Alexander himself has endorsed Gonzalez and is serving as co-chair of his campaign committee.

However, support for keeping Gonzalez on the Supreme Court “for a very long time," a goal he set in his remarks at his swearing-in ceremony on January 9, is probably no stronger anywhere than in King County. Those who have worked most closely with him and know him best will undoubtedly miss his presence on the Superior Court bench and his deep involvement in the community. At the same time, they will wish Gonzalez all the best for future success as he embarks on the next and greatest step of his career. 

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