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Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst, a leading advocate for public legal education and access to justice, was named the 2011 recipient of CPLE’s Flame of Democracy Award.
Fairhurst received the award from Marlin J. Appelwick and Judith Billings, co-chairs of the Council on Public Legal Education, before more than 80 national and state leaders in the field at Seattle University’s School of Law. Recognition of the justice’s contributions was one of several events commemorating Constitution Day on Sept. 17, 2011.
Fairhurst, who was first elected to the Washington Supreme Court in 2002, had been a member of CPLE for several years.
A 1984 graduate of Gonzaga University School of Law (cum laude), she spent the first two years of her career as a judicial clerk for Chief Justice William H. Williams and Justice William C. Goodloe. She later worked for Attorneys General Ken Eikenberry and Christine Gregoire, specializing in criminal justice, transportation, revenue, and labor.
Fairhurst organized the first statewide conference on domestic violence, and planned and facilitated a youth violence summit. She also worked on a constitutional amendment to increase the rights of crime victims, and organized conferences on sex offenders who live in the community after completing their sentences.
When she was elected president of the Washington State Bar in 1997, Fairhurst was the youngest woman to hold the position. She later served on the Bar’s Board of Governor’s, representing the Third Congressional District as president of Washington Women Lawyers.
The oldest of seven children, Fairhurst says she pursued law is help people. “I didn’t have any lawyers in my family,” she once told Gonzaga University, “So I didn’t know exactly what that meant besides watching ‘Perry Mason,’ and of course, I wanted to be Perry Mason.”
Though she did not work as a defense attorney like the television character, Fairhurst has devoted much of her career to giving voice to those underrepresented in the legal profession: women and minorities. She has also worked to ensure access to justice and fairness for all.
Fairhurst has written several majority opinions for the court, sometimes siding with law enforcement. But one of her most widely recognized opinions was a 2006 dissent, in Andersen v. King County, when the Supreme Court upheld the Legislature’s authority to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. She called the court’s majority opinion “blatant discrimination” against gay and lesbian citizens.
“I would hold that there is no rational basis for denying same-sex couples the right to marry,” Fairhurst wrote.
For the last two years, Fairhurst has been waging a personal battle against cancer. What began as colon cancer has returned to her lungs. Although doctors are not optimistic, Fairhurst has not eased up on her work – or her hope for a recovery.
“I think my legacy, really, is that I love the law, and … really cared about people,” Fairhurst told KING-TV in October. “Really, it’s the people who make up the government. We are the government, and we have responsibility as citizens to make our government as good as it can be.”
Information from the Washington Courts, Gonzaga University, and KING-TV was used in this report.