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Supreme Thrill

By J. Kingston Pierce

“All rise!” commands the court clerk, as the sharp echo of his gavel-banging dies amid the rows of wooden seating, chandeliers and diamond-patterned carpeting in the Washington Supreme Court chamber. Slightly more than a dozen spectators stand as the nine members of this state’s highest judicial body—five men, four women, all swathed in dark robes—file back into the courtroom after an hour’s break, resuming their positions behind the bench, the more senior members seated nearest to Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander’s chair in the center.

The last to claim her spot, four tall leather chairs to the audience-right of the chief and next to the clerk’s desk, is Debra L. Stephens, Washington’s youngest, newest justice and the first woman appointed to the high court from the state’s east side.

The day’s schedule has been thrown off, and it’s not even lunchtime. Following a straightforward opening session—during which the debate turned on whether a defendant’s efforts to hire more than one person to kill his family members constituted a single solicitation to commit homicide or more than one—the defense counsel in the morning’s second case was found to be missing. Now, following a necessary continuance, and with the errant attorney scraping the egg from his face, things appear to be back on track.

This second case also involves violence: When a man fired a gun into his mother-in-law’s house, “intent on inflicting great bodily harm” to his wife, was he also guilty of first-degree assault against the three children who were in there with her (but who were not ultimately harmed)? The gunman’s attorney contends that his client should not be held liable for assault against the youngsters, as he didn’t know they were present. But a representative of the King County District Attorney’s office makes the opposite argument: that the gunman was accountable for trying to hurt everyone inside, whether he knew they were there or not.

While the attorneys deliver their presentations, each restricted to 20 minutes, the justices interrupt them now and then with questions. Barbara Madsen, who was a Seattle Municipal Court judge with lengthy experience in domestic-violence issues before being elected to this court in 1992, seems most often to engage the lawyers in debate, but none of her colleagues is silent. That includes Stephens, who—though she’s a furious note-taker—fires off the occasional query that suggests she isn’t exactly new to this game.

Which, of course, she isn’t. Prior to Gov. Christine Gregoire appointing her to the Supreme Court in 2007 (she took the seat previously held by Bobbe Bridge, who stepped down to help run the nonprofit Center for Children & Youth Justice), Stephens argued before this lofty bench more than 100 times as a lawyer from Spokane, focused on appellate practice. She had previously been tapped by Gregoire to be a judge for Division 3 of the Court of Appeals. Although it’s been “a quick climb up the judicial ranks for Stephens,” as Seattle Times political reporter David Postman once put it, even her “scant judicial experience means she has more time on the bench than five of her new colleagues did before they got to the high court.”

Now, after more than a year on Washington’s top court, Stephens is settling into the job that she decided would be right for her only many years after law school. She is beginning to quiet critics who once complained she was beholden to special interests.

Justice in the making

Probably no child grows up dreaming of someday becoming a state Supreme Court justice—and Debra Leigh Williams, later Stephens, was no exception.

“When I was in high school, maybe I thought I wanted to be in diplomacy, international relations,” she recalls, sitting back in a chair in her office on the second floor of Olympia’s pillared Temple of Justice, crossing her legs under a green print dress. “And I felt that same way somewhat through college, too. By the time I graduated from college, I think I wanted to be a professor. I actually started a Ph.D. program in philosophy back at Indiana University ... but I didn’t want to be wedded to getting a Ph.D. in a field that had very little employment opportunity.”

The Spokane-born Stephens, 43, started life under what she terms “modest” circumstances. So she understands the importance of being employable. Her father operated a few small businesses around the Lilac City, including a little restaurant and bar, and later a photo-finishing shop. She grew up with three sisters, only one of whom was older than she. But when Stephens was 9 years old, her family’s quiet life in the Spokane Valley was disrupted by her parents’ divorce. Both her parents later remarried, her father wedding a teacher (with whom he later bore Stephens’ fourth sister), while her mother swapped “I do’s” with a man who, she says, “had a little heating and cooling business.”

“People talk about the trauma of divorce—and it is difficult,” concedes Stephens. “But our parents worked hard to stay active in our lives, and [splitting up] was the best thing for both of them. And I think it’s framed my view of divorce. I’ve been married for 20 years, and I hope to never be divorced; but for some people—and my parents were among those—it let them have the kind of life they deserved to have, and each of them has been remarried 35 years. So it was a good thing.”

Following the split, Stephens and her siblings lived with their dad. The justice admits she “wasn’t a good student” through her early school days, but “started to get it together when I got involved in theater and speech classes.” During her senior year at West Valley High School she was chosen student body president. Thanks to a debate scholarship, she enrolled at Gonzaga University in 1983, eventually mixing the cerebral with the athletic: Stephens was both a star disputant and a basketball cheerleader. She graduated in ’87 bearing a philosophy degree with a concentration in international relations—the first in her family to earn a college degree. She considered taking the U.S. foreign service exam, but instead stayed in Spokane and taught speech communications at a community college, working with many “displaced homemakers,” women who were “committed to getting an education and being able to make a living, and not having to be dependent on anyone—I just loved working with them.”

While at Gonzaga, she met her future husband, Craig Stephens, about five years older than she, whose mother worked as a switchboard operator in the university’s administration building. “I knew her before I knew my husband,” she says with a smile. “A girlfriend of mine was engaged to a high school friend of his, and we met at an engagement party or something. We both played tennis, so we’d play tennis together, and it went on from there.” The couple moved briefly to Indiana, home of the hospital capital-equipment company for which Craig Stephens worked—and still works—as general manager. But they soon returned to Eastern Washington, and in 1989 they were married.

The changes kept coming. While working as an assistant dean at Gonzaga, doing recruiting, Debra Stephens finally decided to attend law school.

“After we moved back to Spokane,” she remembers, “I found out about the Thomas More Scholars Program” for Gonzaga School of Law students interested in serving the public interest. She applied, was accepted, and started cracking law books in the summer of 1990, five weeks after her first child, daughter Lindsey, was born. She graduated summa cum laude in 1993, and signed on as a staff attorney for Judge Fred Van Sickle with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.

Stephens’ move into practicing appellate law in Spokane two years later was accompanied by the beginning of her time as an adjunct professor at the Gonzaga School  of Law and the kick-off to a 12-year association with the Amicus Curiae Program of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association (now the Washington Association for Justice), touted as “the longest-standing institutional ‘friend of the court’ program in the state.”

Attorney and playwright Bryan Harnetiaux, who was originally one of Stephens’ professors at Gonzaga and then worked with her on the Amicus Curiae Program (she doesn’t hesitate in labeling him her “mentor”), calls his former pupil “a marvelous advocate. As a lawyer she had great scholarly and analytical abilities; was a clear and concise writer,” Harnetiaux explains, noting that the two of them regularly filed friend of the court briefs on civil issues often involving tort, insurance and constitutional law. “She could look at issues in a global way and analyze them in terms of big-picture consequences. ... And on top of everything else, she was fun. She had all of those things together, without arrogance. There’s ultimately a humility that grounds her.”

That “humility” might also help explain Stephens’ hesitancy about moving from one side of the bench to the other. “When I started law school,” she says, “I never thought I wanted to be a judge. I always thought, ‘Who would I be to tell people up or down?’ ... But I have come to appreciate that being a judge isn’t about telling people yes or no. It’s really about maintaining our shared traditions in constitutional and common law, taking the time to articulate the rule of law, and understanding how our decisions affect people.”

In the spring of 2007, 14 years after she became a lawyer, Stephens was appointed by Gov. Gregoire to fill the Division 3 Court of Appeals seat vacated by retiring Judge Ken Kato. Just seven months later, the governor made Stephens her first Supreme Court appointment. That body hadn’t featured a member from Eastern Washington since Richard Guy retired as chief justice in 2001.

Harnetiaux, for one, wasn’t surprised by Stephens’ quick promotion. “It’s one of those things where she got there through hard work,” he says. “It’s not a fairy tale, even though it now seems inexorable. It’s nice to see something that you think ought to happen actually come about.”

Politics aside

Not everyone believed Stephens was the best candidate for her position. Despite a résumé that included her service as a deacon in a Spokane Presbyterian church, reports that her father had once run for the state Legislature as a Republican, her personal assurances that she had never been politically involved, and a pretty shallow record of judicial decisions on which to base any opposition, GOP critics from outside her hometown groused about Stephens having given Gregoire a $100 campaign donation and especially about her involvement with the trial lawyers’ organization, known to be influential in Democratic politics.

Republican ex-Sen. Slade Gorton remarked in a statement released by Justice for Washington Foundation, a group seeking to curb what it contends is judicial activism, that Stephens’ selection was “a disappointment as the appointee represents an extreme position within the legal profession. A more moderate appointment would have been preferable.” The same group’s president, Alex Hays, says he remains concerned that Stephens had “an unusually strong relationship with the strongest special-interest group in the state [the trial lawyers].” But he could not document specific examples of her decisions on the Supreme Court that have been colored by that relationship. “There’s not enough of a track record yet,” Hays concedes. “I have no idea how we would rate [Stephens] as a candidate for her seat, because there’s not enough of a story told about her yet.”

Nonetheless, Gregoire and the Spokane County Republican Party agreed that it was important for Washington’s dry side to again be represented on the high court.

Now, having secured her place on the bench for at least the next six years, thanks to an election last November (during which she ran unopposed, following the sudden withdrawal of her would-be opponent, Pierce County Judge Jack Hill), and after relocating her family (which includes not only her 18-year-old daughter, but a 13-year-old son named Bob) to Olympia, Stephens can concentrate on her judicial responsibilities.

“I very much enjoy this work,” she says, “as it brings forward much of what I found most rewarding in my practice: turning over complex legal issues and working with committed and talented colleagues. There is an additional piece of the work here that I particularly appreciate. I have always been involved in the community, and being a justice gives me a unique opportunity to serve the public interest, especially on issues of access to justice and preserving the rule of law. So I love what I’m doing right now, but when I reflect on the work I did before I became a judge, I realize that I have always had the good fortune to be able to do what I love. Everyone should be so blessed.”

Of course, she has a life off the bench, too—one that seems to revolve mostly around outdoor activities. As she did when she was a girl, Stephens spends much of her summers in Hells Canyon, on the Washington-Idaho border. And although she almost drowned after falling off a dock into the Snake River at age 8 (“It’s one of the more terrifying memories”), she and her family now own a cabin on that same watercourse, from which they can set off water-skiing, wakeboarding or rafting whenever conditions seem right.

When asked what issues she thinks are most important for the state Supreme Court to deal with in the near term, Stephens singles out “cases that present significant issues I did not have occasion to deal with as a lawyer or at the Court of Appeals, [such as] death penalty cases—we have several pending—and cases challenging acts of the governor or Legislature.”

She has a different response when asked about her concerns for the future in general, and what issue she’d most like to have an impact on as a judge.

 “I think the biggest challenge facing my daughter’s generation is alienation,” says Stephens. “We’ve seen generation after generation become more alienated from real involvement and a vested interest in their democracy. ... That’s not going to lead to good things in the long run, to put it mildly. We have to give young people back a sense that they aren’t powerless, that individuals can change their world. That they are the democracy. ... I want to give young people a sense of ownership about their justice system.”

She has at least until 2015 to try.  L&P

J. Kingston Pierce, a frequent WL&P contributor, is also the senior editor of January Magazine (, editor of The Rap Sheet (, a crime-fiction blog, and the author of two new non-fiction books released this year: San Francisco: Yesterday & Today and Seattle: Yesterday & Today, both from Publications International.

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