Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Mary Fairhurst: Interview with a Chief Justice

Profile / Mary Fairhurst: Interview with a Chief Justice

December 2019 Bar Bulletin

By Mark Johnson

On October 3, Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst announced her intention to retire from the Court, effective January 5. By any measure, Chief Justice Fairhurst has had an extraordinary career.

In her resignation letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, the Chief Justice wrote, in part: “It is with a clear head and a sad heart that I have made the decision that it is time for me to leave the Court.… It has been my honor and privilege to serve as a justice of this court since 2003, particularly as the Chief Justice for the past three years. I am so proud of the work we’ve done as a branch during this time and feel the time is right to focus on my health.”

Mary is a woman with a strong faith. She is one of seven children, raised in Spokane by her mother Mary, a lay chaplain at Sacred Heart Medical Center, and her father Stan, a former Jesuit seminarian who taught at Gonzaga University. She graduated magna cum laude from Gonzaga Law School in 1984. After clerking at the Supreme Court for two years, she served as an assistant attorney general for 16 years. She was elected to the Court in November 2002 and elected chief justice by her colleagues in 2016.

An excellent and entertaining biography of Mary, authored by the very fine writer John C. Hughes, the chief historian of the Secretary of State’s Legacy Program in Olympia, can be found at https://www.sos.wa.gov/_assets/legacy/aotc/mary-fairhurst.pdf.

As Mary prepares to begin life off the Court, she kindly agreed to be interviewed by KCBA member and Bar Bulletin contributor Mark Johnson.

Q. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the Bar Bulletin Madam Chief Justice.

A. Thank you for asking me Mark.

Q. Fair warning, Madam Chief Justice. I am going to begin, and then end, the interview with a tough question. So … if you could go to dinner with either the Gonzaga Bulldog or the Mariner Moose, whom would you choose and why?

A. I would have dinner with the Mariner Moose. I have had a crush on the Moose for many, many years. We have been through many highs and lows together. I do love the Bulldog as well and would definitely have lunch or coffee with him.

Q. Tell us what inspired you, and who influenced you, to become a lawyer?

A. Many people inspired or influenced me to become a lawyer. Since I was little, people would tell me I should be a lawyer because I was a good arguer and defended people I thought were being mistreated or disrespected. I also took aptitude tests that kept suggesting that I should be a lawyer (or a priest!). And my college counselor, Fr. Frank Costello, SJ, thought I should be a lawyer or an elected official. He thought we needed smart women in these positions.

Q. As a young lawyer, who were your most memorable mentors, and why?

A. As a young lawyer, my most memorable mentors were the two justices for whom I clerked — Chief Justice William Williams and Justice William Goodloe — then-deputy Attorney General Christine Gregoire, then-Revenue Division Chief Lee Johnson and then-Assistant Attorney General Narda Pierce. They were all excellent lawyers, role models and friends. They taught me, believed in me and inspired me.

Q. Tell us why you decided to leave the practice of law for the bench.

A. I decided to leave the practice of law for the bench because then-Justice Charles Z. Smith was retiring because he was aging out at 75 years old, and family, friends and colleagues were encouraging me. Also, because after clerking at the Supreme Court, I knew what an important role and awesome responsibility justices played because the Court’s decisions affect every person in the state of Washington. Finally, I cared greatly about the institution and thought I would do a good job.

Q. In 2002, after having spent 16 years as an assistant attorney general, you ran for the Court and won. Tell us what you remember about the night of the general election and how you felt when your election was certified.

A. The night of the election I was behind, but I was at peace because I felt that I had done all I could do during the campaign and would wait and see the final result. When the election was certified, I felt happiness because I had won and excitement to begin serving as a justice.

Q. Tell us what you consider to be the most rewarding, and the most challenging, tasks that you have faced as the Chief Justice of the Washington Supreme Court.

A. The most rewarding tasks are working on the cases and with others to improve the administration of justice. Those are also the most challenging tasks.

Q. Tell us about the majority opinion, or opinions, authored by you of which you are most proud.

A. Perhaps the majority opinion I authored of which I am most proud, though I worked hard and did my best on all of them, is the majority in State v. Gregory, the death penalty case ending the death penalty in Washington.

Q. Tell us about the dissent, or dissents, authored by you of which you are most proud.

A. Perhaps the dissenting opinion I authored of which I am most proud is the dissent in Andersen v. King County, the Defense of Marriage Act case.

Q. You are a past president of the Washington State Bar Association. Do you have any advice for our current WSBA leadership?

A. My advice for our current WSBA leadership is to relax, breathe, work together, value and respect each other, stay open and be communicative.

Q. You have long been recognized as an ardent advocate for civil legal aid and equal civil justice. In recognition of your commitment to civil justice equality, at the Goldmark Luncheon on February 14 next year, the Legal Foundation of Washington is honoring you with the Charles A. Goldmark Distinguished Service Award. Tell us how first your passion for civil legal aid developed and what receiving the Goldmark Award means to you.

A. My first passion for civil legal aid probably began when I saw injustices and unfairness when I was young. Early on in my career, it was fueled by friendships and service with Ada Shen Jaffe and recruitment by Marla Elliot. My passion continued when I was on the WSBA Board of Governors during the early days of the Access to Justice Committee which later became the Access to Justice Board.

I later served on a variety of Access to Justice committees and attended almost all the Access to Justice conferences. As a justice, I have lobbied in Washington, D.C., and spoken at ATJ events. Receiving the Goldmark Award is a huge honor. I greatly appreciate the recognition, but I have only done what I believe all attorneys should do — work hard to be sure that all have access to justice.

Q. You are known to be a woman of strong faith. Tell us how your faith developed and how it has sustained you through your illness.

A. I am a person of strong faith because I was born to parents (and grandparents) of strong faith and values. The Jesuits played an instrumental role in my and my family’s lives. My mother’s work as the first lay chaplain at Sacred Heart Medical Center had a great influence on me.

My faith has sustained me through my illness because I believe we are all on this earth for a reason and to make a difference. I don’t believe this life is all there is and that we will all be together again someday. Therefore, I am not afraid to die but I choose to live and make the most of the time I have here with you.

Q. Last question … another toughie. What is the one item that you always carry with you, and why do you carry it?

A. I always carry with me a “Believe in Miracles” bracelet because I believe in miracles. And I need one.

Q. Thank you for your time, Madam Chief Justice. I won’t detain you any longer because I understand that there is a daily non-stop flight from SeaTac to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on Delta/Air France.

A. Oui! Oui! Merci Mark. Don’t forget the chocolates! 

Editor’s Note: For more insight into Chief Justice Fairhurst’s legacy of service on the Washington Supreme Court, please see the article on Page 9 summarizing some of her most important opinions.

Mark Johnson is an elected Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers and a past president of the Washington State Bar Association. He has been listed in every edition of The Best Lawyers in America since 1995 and Best Lawyers Publishing named him Seattle’s Plaintiffs’ Legal Malpractice Lawyer of the year three times. Johnson is a partner at Johnson Flora Sprangers PLLC in Seattle.

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