Washington State Supreme Court Judge Steven Gonzalez Thursday issued a call for civility in an age of political hostility.
Civility “isn’t protocol, or etiquette, or even surface politeness,” Gonzalez told about 100 members of the Southwest Washington legal community at Lower Columbia College.
Rather, “it’s the substance of how we interact with each other. We all know that you can be overly polite to someone while conveying disdain at the very same time. Any emotion, if sincere, is involuntary. ... (Treating people with respect) isn’t about following the rules necessarily, or being polite necessarily. It’s about seeing people where they are.”
Gonzalez spoke about inequalities in the legal system and constructing rules that are fair in practice, not just on paper, during a speech marking the 20th anniversary celebration for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Legal Aid. The group consists of local attorneys who voluntarily represent low-income or vulnerable clients.
Reducing or even eliminating court fees is one of Gonzalez’ passions. He illustrated this with a conversation he had when he was a King County Superior Court judge with a clerk about the court’s difficult-to-access fee waiver forms. The clerk told him that they weren’t putting the waiver forms out on the counter, “because then more people would use them.”
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“We realized we had a lot more work to do,” Gonzalez said to laughter. “Because that’s the whole point, isn’t it?”
Gonzalez was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2011, following a legal career serving as a King County Superior Court judge and assistant attorney for the City of Seattle and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. He has studied in universities in the United States, China and Japan, and speaks Japanese, Chinese and Spanish in addition to English.
As a U.S. attorney, Gonzalez was part of the team that successfully prosecuted the case against Ahmed Ressam, also known as the Millennium bomber, in the early 2000s.
Near the close of his speech, Gonzalez brought up two historical U.S. Supreme Court cases that he said show how achieving justice often requires difficult conversations and rejecting the legal status quo: The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which outlawed school segregation, and the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling, which prohibits a suspect’s statements from use in trials if they are not warned by police that they have a right to consult an attorney.
“What about the person being denied his or her rights right now? If everyone says, ‘Oh, yeah, you should get those rights but it would be a stretch for me to help you,’ they’re never going to get help,” Gonzalez said.