The Truth-Seeker

It’s what you do with the knowledge, once you find it, that matters to Rita Bender

Published in 2010 Washington Super Lawyers — June 2010

Rita Bender has been away from the office for the last nine months, teaching a class at the University of Mississippi on racial inequality in education—a topic that seemingly has little to do with her successful family law practice in Seattle.

But it has everything to do with Rita Bender.

This isn’t the first time her path has taken her to the Southern state. In 1964, Bender was also there on a mission to bring racial equality. As her friends well know, her life was shaped by a tragedy that summer, when she was just 22 and had been married for two years. Bender’s husband at the time, Mickey Schwerner, was one of three young civil-rights activists murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan near the town of Philadelphia, Miss., during what became known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The killings became the basis for several movies, including the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.

On this latest return visit to Mississippi, Bender discussed with her college students ways to make amends for past inequities in schooling for minorities. The class, which she taught along with Bill Bender—her husband and law partner at Skellenger Bender—was called “Restorative Justice and Deliberate Denial of Public Education in Mississippi.”

Confident and gracious at 68 with short-cropped white hair and perceptive blue eyes, Rita Bender has been a highly regarded Seattle family law attorney for nearly 30 years. But she has also been in demand as an expert on civil rights since testifying in the 2005 criminal trial that finally brought the ringleader of her late husband’s killers to justice. A USA Today story said Bender’s riveting testimony held the Mississippi courtroom so still that “you could hear spectators breathe.” Her subsequent open letter to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour—in which she challenged his statement that the conviction had brought “closure” to the state’s history of racial upheaval—inspired the creation of the Mississippi Coalition for Racial Justice, a statewide group of community and religious leaders. In 2007 Bender testified before Congress in support of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which provided for the investigation of unsolved civil-rights crimes.

Bender is recognized as not only an eloquent observer of a terrible period in U.S. history, but as someone who offers guidance on moving forward in a positive and constructive manner. Her class on educational equality is a prime example.

In fact, that’s also how colleagues say she handles thorny issues in the field of family law.

“It circles back to her thoughtful processing of things,” says retired Spokane Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine, who has served on numerous Washington State Bar Association committees and projects with Bender.

Bender’s compassion was already in place when she and Schwerner joined the Congress of Racial Equality and moved from her native New York City to Meridien, Miss., to help establish a community center for people to gather, access books on black history and culture, and learn how to register to vote. Her desire to become a lawyer came later.

After Schwerner’s murder in June 1964, his young widow carried on, supporting the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in challenging the whites-only election of delegates to the Atlantic City Democratic National Convention in August 1964, and the 1965 challenge of Congressional elections in which blacks did not vote, due to Mississippi’s draconian education requirements for would-be black voters.

“By then I had decided to go to law school,” Bender recalls. “The law was being used in all kinds of exciting ways, in terms of making significant societal change in the country.”

In the fall of 1965 she entered Rutgers School of Law in New Jersey and clerked for the Center for Constitutional Rights. In 1968, she was one of five women in her graduating class of 150.

“By about 1972, I think, the class was almost 40 percent women. I probably started law school at a point where, for a lot of women, we were at the cusp of significant change.”

She met and married William J. Bender, a fellow Rutgers law student who took her for her first ride on a sailboat. “We happened to sit next to each other in a very boring class,” she recalls, “and within a few weeks decided it was more interesting to go across the street for a cup of coffee than to sit through the lectures.” They both passed the class, nevertheless. After graduation, she worked in a community law office for the American Civil Liberties Union, then as a public defender, then as a clinical law instructor in Rutgers’ poverty-law program.

With their two young children, Johanna and Gabriel, the Benders moved to Seattle in 1975, “on a dare,” she says. They had been visiting Bill’s brother in Seattle. “We sat in a sailing dingy on Crescent Lake and said to each other, ‘I would leave my job and move to Seattle in a minute, but you wouldn’t.’” Turned out they both would—and did—and eventually, they had their own 27-foot sailboat. Bender worked briefly as a public defender before going to work for the Legal Services Corp., a federally funded organization that promotes equal access to justice. In 1978 she became its regional director, overseeing operations in the Northwest, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii and some Pacific islands.

But she was never far from her family—if only, at times, via telephone. Johanna Bender, 40, a pro tem judge in King and Snohomish counties, remembers a phone call coming all the way from Micronesia when she and her brother, now 37 and a lawyer in Indianapolis, were on a sailing adventure with their father. The siblings were 10 and 7 at the time, and their small sailboat was anchored in a cove in British Columbia when her mother’s voice came crackling over the radio. She remembers being awed by that far-reaching voice: “She had placed a call from Micronesia through several international operators and then ultimately to our VHF radio on our boat.” It was just mom staying in touch.

 

Going Private

In 1982, Bender went into private practice. Her experience working with low-income women convinced her that she could be helpful to women with family law issues. Now, she represents as many men as women.

Mike Bugni, of the Law Offices of Michael W. Bugni & Associates, remembers when a client announced that she was going to replace him with “the best.” When informed his replacement was to be Bender, he told his client, “I can’t argue with that.”

Bugni says his experience with Bender up to that point was getting beaten by her. But then the client decided to have both Bugni and Bender work on the complicated case. “We got an excellent result for the client because we were able to work together so well. We ended up just like a hand in a glove. I found that she is somebody who is not only at the top of her game, but works well with others.”

Bender handles divorces, adoptions, assisted reproduction and surrogacy issues, and pre- and post-nuptial agreements. In addition to these family law situations, she represents lawyers on issues of professional ethics and discipline, an area that first interested her while at Rutgers. Again, Bender sees the link between this area of law, her family law practice and the recurring theme of helping and empowering people.

“People who are in difficult emotional situations can sometimes be the most vulnerable to poor practice,” she says. “But that is not limited to family law. The most satisfying part of legal ethics practice is the consultation with good lawyers when they recognize a potential ethics conundrum and want to get advice as to how to proceed properly, so as to avoid any possible harm to clients.”

 

High Praise

Colleagues who have worked with Bender—or against her—appreciate her wisdom and directness.

“I got to see something I wouldn’t see as an opposing attorney,” says Thomas Hamerlinck, a family law attorney in Bellevue who served with Bender as co-counsel on a divorce case. He listened in one day when Bender was advising their client on parenting issues.

“Her advice was measured, wise, and not the kind of advice that was meant to make litigation where there needn’t be litigation—but also not the type of advice that was going to make the client afraid to go to court because she didn’t have a lawyer who was any good,” Hamerlinck says. “I was very impressed.”

Having Bender on the other side is quite another matter, but according to Mabry DeBuys, a family law attorney at K&L Gates, it’s a positive experience. DeBuys says she tells her client as much.

“It’s not going to be one where you say, ‘Put on your waders. It’s going to get nasty.’ You can tell your client, ‘We’ve got our work cut out for us, but it’s going to be very straightforward.’ But if you’re in trial with Rita, you know that every effort has been made to try to settle the case. If you go to trial and you’re in court with her, it’s going to be a very well-run process. It’s not going to be dragged out because she’s not ready.”

And besides, she’s just pleasant to work with—“as nice as the day is long,” says family law attorney Jerry R. Kimball. Her easy laugh is even more appreciated by those who know the trauma that Bender lived through as a young woman.

“When you have something like that happen in your life you have routes you can go,” says DeBuys. “You can become a bitter person. I have great admiration that she’s taken this in a positive direction. That speaks volumes about who she is.”

Bender is known as a truth-seeker “whose word you can really bank on,” according to King County Superior Court Judge Harry McCarthy. But truth without responsibility is an incomplete package, to Bender’s way of thinking. In the class she and her husband taught in Mississippi, the purpose was to get at the truth about how the state had denied education to African Americans. Slaves were forbidden to learn how to read or write, and the problem didn’t go away when slavery did. The state denied education to blacks for decades. Even now, says Bender, funding practices and school district boundaries force many black Mississippi children to get a substandard education.

During the second semester of the seminar, the Benders asked their students to answer the question: “What are you going to do about it?”

“What you do about it is restorative justice, the restoration of society,” she says. “If you don’t do anything about it, then it’s just old history.”

The students came up with thoughtful suggestions. “These are young people, many of whom are going to be the decision-makers in this state in the years to come,” says Bender. She believes that, in time, some of the students will direct their energy to rooting out the causes of extreme poverty and lack of proper education, and see to it that these conditions cease to feed off each other. In time, she hopes, all children in Mississippi will enjoy equal access to education and justice.

The Benders steered their car back toward Seattle in June, but will likely continue to be part of the ongoing work in Mississippi. “Frankly, we’re too involved in it to just let go,” she says.

As she does in all other areas of her life—including now her adventures with five grandsons—she’ll learn from the experience and integrate it into her work.

“I think that anything that broadens one’s understanding of the issues that people struggle with, the life decisions that people have to make, helps in your understanding as a lawyer,” she says. “Nothing in your life happens in a vacuum.”

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