Q&A With Charlie Wiggins, Wiggins & Masters, Bainbridge Island
How a ‘military brat’ ended up setting his sights on the state Supreme Court
Published in 2010 Washington Super Lawyers magazine on May 27, 2010
You grew up in a military family, right? What was that like?
Have you ever seen the movie Brats? It’s a great portrait of growing up in the military. One of the interviewees says, basically, family was very important to my dad, but it was very apparent to everybody that the military had first priority. I think that is one of the major influences of growing up in the military: It gives you this sense that service is important, and service becomes just a huge part of your life. That’s not to say family was unimportant, because I never felt that way, and certainly my dad didn’t.
Did you travel a lot?
Yes. I was born at Fort Bragg, then my dad was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, then in Venezuela. I started school at the international school there, then we lived in Georgia for three years. When my dad went to Korea, we lived in Alabama for a year. On his return, he was stationed at West Point. That was one of the most fun places we lived, because that’s the Army. So I am a graduate of West Point … Elementary.
Any adventures along the way?
We also lived in Orleans, France. My parents were curious and loved to see things, and I think I got that trait from them. While we were in France, we took a weeklong trip to Italy. The six of us all crammed into a Fiat. As though we didn’t have enough people and suitcases in the car, my mother wanted to buy a piece of marble for a coffee table. We put that in the trunk of that Fiat and were stuffed to the gills. And once, when we were in Venezuela, we took a trip into the jungle, and we were bumping along these muddy tracks, fording rivers, and our car got stuck in the middle of the river. My dad had to walk ashore and, frankly, he was worried about piranhas. Fortunately, he found a farmer with a horse and was able to pull the car out of the river.
What do you consider your hometown?
I always tell people, “I’m from the Army.” I love to travel, but now I have lived in the same house for 21 years, and I think this was kind of a desire, after all those years, to put down roots and stay in a place.
How did you become interested in law?
While I was in the Army in military intelligence, I took some classes that were business-oriented and found that interesting, so I got an MBA at the University of Hawaii. I took a couple of law classes—business and real estate law. I thought it was so interesting, and I thought it would be a great complement to the MBA to go to law school. I really didn’t know if I wanted to practice because I’d never been around lawyers. My grandmother had been a legal secretary, and that’s the only person in my family who’s ever been in the legal profession.
So what convinced you?
I went to law school at Duke, and I loved it. I found it incredibly intellectually stimulating. A lot of life turns out to be serendipity, and opportunities come along and you seize them or you don’t.
Any other serendipitous moments in your life?
I bought a house on Bainbridge Island and commuted to work on the ferry—the sun was gorgeous, Mt. Rainier was gorgeous, Mt. Baker, the Olympics. One day I met a charming and beautiful young lady on the ferry, one thing led to another, and we’ve been married for 25 years. Nancy is a nurse, and she was working at Swedish [Hospital] and taking classes and working on her bachelor’s degree. She always got to the ferry early and nailed down a table. Well, if you’re a commuter, those tables are pretty valuable real estate. I did what comes naturally. If you see a beautiful young woman and she’s got a spot at her table …
And how about your career? Why appellate law?
I interviewed at a small firm that is now called Edwards Sieh Smith & Goodfriend, and again, this is the element of serendipity coming into play. I didn’t really set out to do appeals, but 1976 was the year that the new state rules of appellate procedure became effective, and that’s the year I came into the practice. I hadn’t even realized there was such a thing as an appellate firm, or appellate lawyers, for that matter. The senior partner, Malcolm Edwards, was a prominent appellate lawyer who had co-chaired the task force that wrote the new appellate rules, so he went on a lecture circuit around the state. His appellate practice really took off, so there I was, the new kid on the block, and had the opportunity to do some appeals. I did well at it, loved it, and one thing led to another.
Any cases that stand out in your mind?
Yes, the Caperton case. The CEO of Massey Energy, the fourth-largest coal mining company in the country, spent over $3 million getting a judge elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court. That judge wouldn’t recuse himself from Massey’s appeal in the Caperton case and was part of a 3-2 majority that threw out a $50 million jury verdict against Massey. Unbelievable. I’ve been part of the Judicial Selection Commission here in Washington, and as a result was in touch with some national organizations that deal with issues of judicial independence. I was asked to write an amicus brief on behalf of 27 former state Supreme Court judges, arguing that participation by the challenged judge was a violation of due process of law. It’s the case on which John Grisham based his novel The Appeal. You read that book and it’s kind of a chilling experience, and then you realize it really happened—it’s a completely different story, of course, but that was the case study he looked at. Anyway, the U.S. Supreme Court found the West Virginia court in violation of due process.
Any danger of a similar situation here?
Hopefully it will never happen here, but it could. At the time of the Caperton case, Washington state was in the process of rewriting our Code of Judicial Conduct, so I joined with a committee of the Judicial Selection Commission chaired by Judge Deborah Fleck. We worked up a rule: If one of the parties in a case before the court has given over the threshold amount in the judge’s most recent election—in a combination of direct contributions, independent expenditures and contributions to PACs—the opposing party in the case can ask a judge to remove himself from the case. The rule is before the state Supreme Court and still hasn’t been resolved. The other potential solution is public financing of judicial campaigns.
This year you’re hoping to switch to the other side of the bench, correct?
Yes. I served a year on the Court of Appeals in Tacoma in 1995 and felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I felt that my experience and skill set equipped me perfectly for serving as an appellate judge. I ran for election, I lost the election, and I decided that, when the time was right, I’d really like to run again for judicial office. Well, the years rolled by and the time didn’t seem quite right. We had young children at the time, so it was difficult family-wise. When my kids got a little older, every two years I’d think, “Is this the year?” But either the people who were running were outstanding candidates, or there was no open seat—and I was somewhat reluctant to run against an incumbent. The Superior Court is not really where I think my gifts are. So then I looked at the Court of Appeals. There are two positions there for which I would be eligible, and they are filled by people I have a lot of respect for. So that really left the state Supreme Court, and every two years, three judges are up for election. Last year, my daughter graduated from college, my son graduated from high school . . . I just think it’s time.
You say you’ve inherited wanderlust. Do you travel much?
Yes, what I love about traveling is that you find great things about every place you go, and you find that everywhere you go, people love things about the places where they live. Back in the ’90s, I went to Albania with a group of lawyers who were working with the judges there in the transition from communism to democracy. Albania was kind of a mess at the time. But the people were absolutely wonderful and I loved it, not because of natural beauty but because of people beauty. And Tijuana—I loved Tijuana. I went there five times with my son and daughter and our church youth group to build houses in very poor areas surrounding Tijuana. These are very simple houses, no plumbing, but they are vast improvements for the people who get them. Being there with kids from Bainbridge Island, most of whom have not exactly experienced great hardship, it was a wonderful eye-opener for them to see that these people who had virtually nothing loved life and loved their families and enjoyed each other.
You’ve also built houses for Habitat for Humanity here in the Northwest?
Back in about 2000, I was approached by a member of the board of Habitat for Humanity of Kitsap County to see if we could get the lawyers organized to build a house for a single mom and her family. More recently, the Kitsap lawyers have raised money for a second Habitat home, this time in Suquamish for another single mother and her family. And this is an interesting fact: There are about 500 active lawyers who live on Bainbridge Island, out of a total population of about 22,000, so what that tells you is that about one out of every 44 residents of Bainbridge is an active member of the state Bar. When we lawyers built this first house, right next door was another Habitat house that was being built by the dentists.
Which house had the better crew?
I want you to know dentists are much better with tools than lawyers. Perhaps it’s their experience with drills.