October 24, 2006
Justice "No-Show"

Justice Susan Owens' entire presence at the only scheduled public debate between herself and her challenger, Sen. Stephen Johnson.

The AP reports: "Justice Susan Owens pulls out of debate". Chickened out would be more accurate.

These are my questions that Justice Owens was afraid to answer in public. (I didn't ask all of them because of time constraints and redundancy. See the video when its available for all the questions, Johnson's answers and Owens' empty chair).

The Owens campaign claimed as its excuse for chickening out was that I'm a donor to Johnson's campaign and that I have endorsed him on my blog. My support for Johnson has never been a secret. Even her campaign admitted that Owens voted to accept me as a moderator before she voted against it:

"Obviously everyone knows where Sharkansky is coming from on the race," said Christian Sinderman, a consultant for Owens' campaign. "Unfortunately, it wasn't until the weekend that we were able to fully brief Justice Owens and researched the true extent of his involvement in the Johnson campaign."
What does this tell us about Owens? Has she been a lawyer for 30 years without knowing what a contract is? Or does she always make decisions before learning the facts?

Some of the lefties have speculated that this whole debate was some kind of elaborate right-wing game to trap Owens into a losing situation. Totally ridiculous.

The Downtown Seattle Republican Club is a small, informal group. Phil Bevis is now organizing the events, and I'm an occasional host/interviewer. Phil called me last Tuesday afternoon and said that he hadn't succeeded in arranging a speaker for this Monday yet. The Supreme Court debate was my idea. It was also my idea to invite somebody from The Stranger, which had endorsed Owens in the primary, so we would have an ideologically balanced panel. Phil agreed, and called later to say that he confirmed with Johnson's campaign. My understanding was that Johnson's campaign signed off on including a moderator from The Stranger. (They later disputed that they agreed to The Stranger). I emailed an invitation to Josh and Dan on Tuesday evening. Dan wrote back on Wednesday afternoon to agree in principle that he or Josh would do it. The Owens campaign confirmed their agreement on Thursday and I spoke with Josh to go over details. Shortly after I spoke with Josh, Phil called me to say that the Johnson campaign did not agree to The Stranger's participation. Johnson felt they had crossed the line from disagreement on issues into personal attacks, both during the editorial board meeting and in their endorsement editorial, which appeared that day. He wouldn't do the debate if The Stranger was involved. He would agree to anybody else from the media, including anybody from the P-I (which endorsed Owens) or the Seattle Weekly (which hasn't endorsed anybody yet, but would seem more likely to endorse Owens).

I tried to convince the Johnson campaign that pulling the plug on The Stranger would be a mistake. I know Josh, and while I often disagree with his opinions and the way he expresses them, I've both been grilled by him and have watched him interview others. He is passionate about his beliefs and asks tough questions, but he is civil and I was certain he would be especially civil on statewide TV. More than that, I also think that Johnson is smart enough and eloquent enough to hold his own against whatever questions Josh would have tossed his way. Even though his campaign insists that they never agreed to The Stranger's involvement in the first place (and that it was either my mistake or Phil's mistake to take away that they had), I still think they made a tactical error in not going with the flow and accepting the status quo once Josh had been invited. I'll also concede that I made a mistake in not holding my ground once my invitee Josh had been rejected. If I had a chance to do this over, I would have told the Johnson campaign that Josh and I would be there on Monday evening to interview whichever candidates chose to show up, and hoped that the Senator would be one of them.

But hey, Phil and I had never organized a debate before and we were fumbling our way through this to make it happen. Live and learn. Both campaigns agreed to Connelly as the second moderator. He accepted on Thursday afternoon and we announced the event to the media.

The Owens campaign called Phil on Sunday to express misgivings ( did it take her 3 days to figure out that a Republican club interview panel might include someone who supported her Republican opponent? ) But they didn't inform anybody that they had decided to chicken out until after noon on Monday. I didn't learn about this until after 1pm when one of my blog readers forwarded me the e-mail that she sent to her list.

While there is some equivalence between Johnson's rejection of Josh and Owens' rejection of me, Owens made a far bigger mistake: her campaign had already agreed, in writing, to all of the terms and participants. The arrangements had already been made, the room paid for, the media and the public invited. 4 hours is not enough time to make any changes to the program. And Joel Connelly was a totally stand up guy -- he insisted on going through with the debate and promised to pose questions to Owens whether there was anybody sitting behind her microphone or not, and that's exactly what he did. (He asked great questions of both candidates and earned a lot of respect from me and everyone else in the room) Johnson answered all the questions with knowledge and humility. He comes across as judicial, someone whom you would trust to render a fair ruling within the law. (Watch the video and make up your own mind) Owens last-minute renege on her commitment, citing fear of a blogger, an ordinary voter who dares to criticize her colleagues, was pretty sad. She revealed herself to be incapable of defending her record before people who don't necessarily agree with her.

But in fact, I suspect that I was just an excuse and that it's Johnson she's afraid to debate. It's not like this is the first time that she's failed to show up for a scheduled appearance with him.

Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at October 24, 2006 01:30 AM | Email This
1. I am one of those people who believes that if politics were more interesting and less negative, more people would get involved. And to far too many people, Washington's Supreme Court seems like a remote, unaccountable institution where decisions are made that effect our lives... but where we have no say.

I must admit that I had high hopes for the debate I helped organize Monday night. Judicial races can be a little dry, and we were explictly trying to make this one interesting by using moderators who have PERSPECTIVES and care about issues and laws. Joel Connelly was chosen by the Owens campaign to provide philosophical contrast to Stefan Sharkansky, after we were unable to get agreement from both parties on our original proposed co-moderator.

I must admit that, like all too many of my fellow citizens, I know too little about the makeup of the Court, the philosophies of its members, and the way it chooses cases and reaches decisions. I was looking forward to the debate to learn more. These are the reasons why I spent the better part of five days putting this debate together. And then back together. And that is why I personally underwrote the cost of the room used for the debate. And it is why we had such a positive reception from the press.

The Owens campaign agreed to place, date and time, rules, format, and moderators Stefan Sharkansky and Joel Connelly (who was their nominee). As they state in emails, THEY COMMITTED to this event. Based on their committment, not only am I out of pocket, but the taxpayers of Seattle spent quite a bit of money (the city's Seattle Channel paid for the audio setup, and filmed the event for themselves and TVW). And her opponent, Senator Johnson, took valuable time away from his campaign to prepare. Our moderators took time away from their work and personal lives to prepare to ask questions about a very complex set of issues.

The Owens campaign had an agreement and a committment to appear at todays event. If Justice Owens does not trust the judgement of her campaign manager to make good choices on her behalf, she should not allow her to enter into agreements and contracts. Justice Owens was and is aware that this agreement and committment existed, and she nonetheless unilaterally broke it, causing injury and financial loss. In any other setting, I believe she would agree that such action would constitute a tort. In addition, her staff engaged in a concerted effort to undermine media attendance at the event, and transparently orchestrated an online campaign to trash it.

Justices of our State Supreme Court are supposed to show a respect for agreements and contracts, and to hold themselves to a higher standard. Justice Owens and her campaign have, in this instance, unilaterally broken one at a cost to both individuals and taxpayer funds. During the debate, Senator Johnson gave an articulate presentation of his personal and philosophical views, and of his judicial philosophy and how it relates to issues that effect every Washington citizen. It left me wishing that I was able to hear Justice Owens' views on these same issues. I believe Justice Owens owes the people of Washington answers to these questions, which I will be forwarding to her.

The real losers in this are ALL the citizens of the State of Washington. What could have been a lively and informative debate, televised statewide, about the philosophies that underlie important decisions which truly effect our lives, was lost.

Posted by: Phil Bevis on October 24, 2006 04:05 AM
2. Phil--
I appreciate you & all the folks who organized the event. Owens failure to appear is shameful. But their is a reason she didn't appear. And the reason is that list of questions Stefan prepared. Every one of those questions was far & legitimate....every single one. How could Owens possible answer these questions about her RECORD!!!
When people vote...hopefully they will consider those questions she was afraid to answer.
PS--Those questions, if slightly abbreviated would make a great campaign ad.
PSS--Owens is a moron. The folks who live in Forks are absolutely shocked this woman is a Supreme Court Justice. A District Court Judge from Forks!! Only in Amerika!

Posted by: Mr. Cynical on October 24, 2006 06:28 AM
3. From her ads, apparently she doesn't know the legal requirements to become Supreme Court Justice. Being a judge at some level is not one of them which is contrary to her campaign ads.

My word, I don't blame Johnson for ignoring the Stranger after what they apparently put him through. Seems they couldn't differentiate between a judge position and a legislator position and just hammered (like only the lefties can) him on obscure issues and points not in keeping to making decisions on the laws of the State.

Posted by: swatter on October 24, 2006 07:21 AM
4. As one of the handful of spectators at the forum yesterday, I was as dismayed at the lack of public interest as I was pleased at the structure of the debate.

It was nothing like a 'gotcha' session. Both Stefan Sharkansky and Joel Connelly asked reasonable and proper questions of both candidates. Theoretically, Justice Owens will respond on paper to Connelly's fine questions to her vacant seat, but based on her physical absence I'd doubt that her mental engagement is any more in evidence. Senator Johnson noted that, in comparison to the debate rules limiting time to answer, any deferred answers from her are like a take-home test [with no telling who actually drafted the answer-HB].

By pulling the plug at the last minute, Justice Owens has demonstrated a contempt for the political process that overlaps her contempt (evidenced by several of her SC decisions) for individual rights over government mandates no matter how unconstitutional. She deserves to lose this one.

PS - my wife heard on KUOW late in the afternoon that the debate 'had been cancelled'. Was this an MSM attempt to kill attendance at the debate?

PPS - the P-I had a reporter at the event. Their article this morning is all about Judge Owen's pulling out, and of her 'concerns' - nothing whatever about the proceeding of the debate, or Senator Johnson's answers to the questions. THAT'S what leads to criticism of MSM for its selective omissions - there is more to the story, but the paper apparently doesn't want to present Johnson in any sort of favorable light, or any light whatever. Shame on the P-I.

However, I saw Joel Connelly, the P-I columnist and co-moderator, in a new light. His well-written columns are paragons of partisan attack-dog hostility. His performance as moderater was, in contrast, statesmanlike, and his questions were well thought out, and probing of each candidate. Maybe Justice Owens, having read some of his columns, just fled in terror before him.

Posted by: Hank Bradley on October 24, 2006 07:33 AM
5. I find it interesting that the "public forum" that Owens agrees (at this time) to appear at next is sponsored by the "Government Lawyers and Washington Women Lawyers candidate forum" at Rambling Jacks Restaurant in Olympia: 520 4th Ave. E. at noon.

I wonder who will be the moderators? Will it be televised? Will any audio or video be made available to the electorate? what is the seating for the "public" like non-lawyers? Sounds like Dem's are fine as long as they control the whole room.

Posted by: Smokie on October 24, 2006 08:05 AM
6. When I saw Hank's comment above, I thought Owens was too cynical and should have trusted that Stefan would have asked serious, objective questions.

But now I've read the questions that Stefan prepared. What a joke. Apparently Stefan thought that Johnson could not speak for himself and needed one of the "moderators" to make his points as well. Every single question was a blatant hit at Owens and a softball for Johnson. Stefan, by posting these questions you have not only vindicated Owens's decision to skip the inquisition, but also ensured that you will never again be asked to be moderator in a serious debate.

Posted by: Bruce on October 24, 2006 09:39 AM
7. Sorry, Bruce, but Owens is a coward, or else the concern over being "trapped" would never have stopped her from showing up. That you support her is meaningless. That she's a coward means everything. That leftists will support cowardice speaks for itself.

Posted by: Hinton on October 24, 2006 09:48 AM
8. Every single question was a blatant hit at Owens and a softball for Johnson.

How is asking her to explain her legal decisions on cases that came before a "blatant hit"? She is free to explain her views, and then Johnson could have explained how he would have ruled. This is the essence of debate, and is meant to elicit the difference in the two candidates. The problem is that Owens doesn't WANT the public to know the truth about her.

She only wants softball questions on her judicial philosophy - maybe she can get James Lipton to ask her a few kiss-ass questions.

Posted by: Palouse on October 24, 2006 09:56 AM
9. Mr Cynical;
Most of us out here(west end of the Olympic Peninsula) thought a rural judge on the urban/suburban court would be to our benifit, given GMA and CAO's and their impact on the rural population. We were wrong. Her interpretation of the law was so different from her ads in the campaign that placed her in office. That is, a rural view is needed on the Court. What a surprize.
Mike H.

Posted by: Mike Harmon on October 24, 2006 09:56 AM
10. What's this, Bruce, moderators aren't allowed to ask questions which potentially highlight the differences between two candidates? If Owens had the courage of her convictions, she should have been proud to explain her reasoning in any controversial case, whether she concurred or dissented with the majority opinion. Connelly had every opportunity to ask tough questions of Johnson, and I'm sure he did (not having a TV, I had no opportunity to watch). If it turns out that he didn't ask tough questions of Johnson, then Connelly failed in his duty as a moderator. Stefan did not.

Posted by: sro on October 24, 2006 10:02 AM
11. candidates are free to attend or not; like the President not going to an NAACP rally; why get slapped around from those who disagree with you? it's human nature.

that said--i think it sends a (bad) message that a candidate does not want to face the music, yets wants all the benefits of the music. bad move, but her choice. and--now it's my choice to infer what i choose by her hide & seek game.

does she think she can avoid tough issues & decisions the same way on the court if elected? the ostrich method? i'll at least give Burner the credit for showing up with Mike.

Posted by: jimmie-howya-doin on October 24, 2006 10:35 AM
12. Mike Harmon--
I imagine a whole lot of West End folks were fooled once by Owens previous ads & representations.
However, West End folks are also smart enough to look at her actual record and see they were DUPED!
As the WHO sang:
"We went get fooled again!"

Posted by: Mr. Cynical on October 24, 2006 01:18 PM
13. You were TOTALLY silent when Reichert is a no show for the Burner-Reichert debate last week on Mercer Island.

No reasons given...just decided MI voters just don't matter, I guess.

Where was your outrage? Where was your sense of smarmy disgust?

What a sham.

Posted by: Tom Johnson on October 24, 2006 01:35 PM
14. Palouse@8 and sro@10, of course moderators can and should ask about the candidates' reasoning in real cases and try to expose the differences between them. But they shouldn't ask loaded questions all obviously hostile to one side and friendly to the other side. That's what a participant in a debate does, not a moderator.

Then there are snide remarks like "Mrs. Gregoire". These are affectations that play well to the wingnuts on SP but scream "I'm not a real journalist" to the mainstream.

Frankly I'm surprised that Stefan was foolish enough to post those questions. He presumably wants people to think he would be impartial enough to someday be invited to try moderating again. But after reading these questions, no one in their right mind would invite him.

Posted by: Bruce on October 24, 2006 01:38 PM
15. Senator Johnson noted that, in comparison to the debate rules limiting time to answer, any deferred answers from her are like a take-home test [with no telling who actually drafted the answer-HB]

Yep. Just like absentee voting. A take home election with no telling who actually fills out the ballot. I can guess how she'd decide on that one if it ever gets to the court.

Posted by: RBW on October 24, 2006 01:41 PM
16. Wow, the rumor mill is going round full-circle.

jimmie- she was for the debate before she was against it. That is, she agreed to it. Why not? Well, you answered, but at first, she had agreed to do it and then backed out.

Tom Johnson, paid troll, was Reichert going to be there or was he just invited and had better things to do? Big difference if the latter. And if the former, you don't know what he was doing that was better.

BTW, Tom Johnson, I get to vote for Steve Johnson over Owens, but I am not in Reichert's district. This is a more wide-reaching contest; Owens is relying on her sex appeal- any woman would just obviously vote for another woman, just because.

Posted by: swatter on October 24, 2006 01:45 PM
17. But they shouldn't ask loaded questions all obviously hostile to one side and friendly to the other side.

Again, the questions were HER DECISIONS in real cases. How can asking about her OWN REASONING be hostile? Unless those decisions are beyond judicial reasoning and have no basis in law, which if that was the case, the voters are owed an explanation.

On the flip side, how can her reasoning in those cases be "friendly" to Johnson? If he disagrees with her decision, he would have the opportunity to refute it and then she can defend it. That is what DEBATE is all about.

Posted by: Palouse on October 24, 2006 01:54 PM
18. Bruce: "after reading these questions, no one in their right mind would invite him".

Wow. Some, but not all, of these questions ask the candidates to comment on certain rulings that many people feel are controversial. The purpose was to give Owens the opportunity to explain her decision and to give Johnson the opportunity to explain whether or not, and why or why not he would have concurred.

If I'm wrong to assume that these rulings are problematic then both Owens and Johnson have the opportunity to justify each ruling to the public. But Justice Owens chose not to do that. And your attack on me for even asking these questions does not help justify the rulings either.

In fact, all you're doing is confirming that Susan Owens concurred in a bunch of dumb, indefensible ruling.

Posted by: Stefan Sharkansky on October 24, 2006 02:07 PM
19. Allow me to lower the IQ of this discussion by saying what we are all thinking. Justice Owens fell out of the ungly tree and hit every branch on her way down. If I looked like her I wouldn't show up at events either. Let's cut her some slack. OK

Posted by: The Black Hand on October 24, 2006 03:02 PM
20. Owens also chickened out of a public forum in Stanwood Oct 18. Johnson was there, and Owens had a surrogate liberal (Judge Becker) stand in for her. Too bad we couldn't have heard a direct comparison of ideas and positions. The Stanwood event, by the way, was hosted by the American Association of University Women -- hardly the kind of right-wing radical group that Owens is afraid of.

Posted by: John Morrow on October 24, 2006 03:21 PM
21. Stefan, when did you stop beating your wife?

See, I'm just asking you a question and giving you the opportunity to explain.

You are smart enough to write a drastically one-sided set of questions, so I'm sure you are smart enough to recognize it. And Owens was smart enough to forsee it.

Posted by: Bruce on October 24, 2006 03:41 PM
22. So Bruce, are you saying that justices running for election should not face questions about their controversial decisions? Perhaps we should just ask them questions about their gardening habits or where they go on vacation.

Posted by: Palouse on October 24, 2006 03:51 PM
23. is that a picture of Dean Logan at work on his new job?

Posted by: jimmie-howya-doin on October 24, 2006 04:09 PM
24. They should not face questions that are so one-sided. Even I will admit that there are reasonable arguments on both sides -- otherwise the case would not have made it to the Supreme Court. So a question should fairly probe both sides of the argument. Every one of Stefan's questions was one-sided. I don't know you, Palouse, but I will assume you are intelligent enough to get past your political biases (which we are all entitled to) and recognize the difference between serious, challenging, objective questions and one-sided rhetorical questions that are hostile to one side and softballs to the other.

Posted by: Bruce on October 24, 2006 04:12 PM
25. Bruce, you keep posting how one-sided the questions are, please elaborate by posting specific examples of the questions, and then explaining why they are so one-sided. I fail to see how asking her questions about her own decisions makes it so one-sided. Stefan states some facts regarding some of her decisions in his questions - is it these facts that you opppose? The object of debate questions is not to make candidates feel comfortable.

Also, Connelly is obviously from the left, so she would have presumably had the opportunity to face the softball questions she was after from him. And Johnson would have presumably faced some pointed questions from Connelly as well.

Posted by: Palouse on October 24, 2006 04:33 PM
26. The idea of 'one-sided questions' is hilarious. Presumably a 'two-sided' question would address when you and your wife stopped your respective beatings of each other. And so forth, though and beyond the menage a trois to... let's say a faculty colloquiam.

A good question has a focus, otherwise the respondent blathers in a circle. Joel Connelly's questions were also pointed - was he unfair for making them 'one-sided'? Do MSM journalists (remember, they consider themselves professionals) always cover all points in their questioning of public figures?

And the balance of viewpoints between the two interrogators guaranteed that the debate was NOT one-sided, and did (or could) address more details of each candidate's position than a single moderator. As a voter, this is just what I hoped for in the debate, and only the misfeasance of Susan Owens deprived me of the information I needed for a fully-informed vote.

Her 'concerns', thinly referenced in the P-I article, are far outranked by her abdication of a public responsibility. If she's to run for election, she must lay her cards on the table under less than coddled circumstances.

Posted by: Hank Bradley on October 24, 2006 06:41 PM
27. Gotta agree with Bruce to an extent, your questions aren't worded in a particularly neutral vein. But, I also think a justice of the Supreme Court ought to be able to fend for her or himself.
Probably she is a little camera shy, but if that were so, then perhaps she should have merely declined the original invitation.

Posted by: mark on October 24, 2006 09:04 PM
28. I find it interesting that the "public forum" that Owens agrees (at this time) to appear at next is sponsored by the "Government Lawyers and Washington Women Lawyers candidate forum" at Rambling Jacks Restaurant in Olympia: 520 4th Ave. E. at noon.

Why, that's a moderate forum, don't you know?

Posted by: South County on October 24, 2006 09:07 PM
29. Love your site, Stefan. Just wanted to comment on the latest Darcy Burner mailer which uses Michael Yon's famous picture of the American soldier cradling the dead Iraqi child. Michael Yon has complained about the unauthorized uses of his picture from Iraq, and I am sickened by this one, which has nothing whatsoever to do with 8th District politics! Tried to email Michael, but site is down.


Posted by: Judi Moody on October 30, 2006 11:27 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?