Appeals Court Judge Christine Quinn-Brintnall '76 brings a unique philosophy to the bench
by Ann Mary Quarandillo
As a young practicing attorney, Judge Christine Quinn-Brintnall '76 got a ticket for running a red light. Her car was in the intersection when the light turned yellow, and when it turned red, she kept going so she wouldn't block traffic. Clearly, she thought, she had not violated the law.
But when she went to court to contest the ticket, she heard another story from the police officer, who noticed her going through the intersection when the light was red. She won her case, but "I realized we were both right, because what was true was partly based on perspective," she says. "In cases I've heard over the years, what tells me what's more likely is usually an independent piece of evidence or physical fact. I have to pay attention to detail."
Today, Quinn-Brintnall keeps that question of perspective in mind while reviewing cases as a member of the Washington State Court of Appeals Division II, covering most of southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula. Elected in 2000 and reelected in 2006, she has also served as the court's Chief Judge, sifting through piles of court records and questioning lawyers to determine if mistakes were made that call into question the integrity of the decision or the process. "Being an appeals court judge is like taking the bar exam over and over," she explains. "You really have to be a generalist and know all different aspects of the law."
The judge took a very untraditional pathway to a career in law. She grew up in Astoria, Ore., where her father was a Columbia River Bar Pilot. She started college at the University of Oregon, but in her sophomore year, her father was killed in an accident at sea. She took a job at a tavern in Eugene, pulling beers from 7 a.m. until early afternoon, then taking classes.
One day, a stranger came into the bar and started giving her a hard time. To her surprise, one of the regulars, who was poor and close to homeless, stood up to defend her. "Working there really taught me to look beyond the surface of people," she says. "Especially as a lawyer, when dealing with criminal cases and people who are not always the nicest, that's important."
Quinn-Brintnall continued working and got married, taking college classes wherever she could. She and her husband moved to Tacoma so he could attend the University of Puget Sound Law School, and she found Evergreen.
She earned her bachelor's in less than two years, studying philosophy with faculty member Mark Levensky. "We were doing philosophy rather than just studying what philosophers had written," she recalls. "You could not come to class unprepared, because the questions we came up with are what moved the seminar." It was helpful to her, then and now, to be exposed to a broad range of ideas and diverse personal styles.
—Judge Christine Quinn-Brintnall
Quinn-Brintnall planned to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, but decided law was a more practical way to put the argument skills she'd built in seminar to work. "I sat in on some first-year classes, and found a little philosophy went a long way in law school," she says. "Deductive reasoning, critical reading, semantics, argument are all key to being a practicing attorney."
Her oldest son was eight months old when she entered the University of Puget Sound Law School, where she served on the law review, was twice named Outstanding Woman Law Student, and graduated with honors on Mothers Day 1980. In the following two months, she had another baby, took the bar exam and began clerking at the Court of Appeals Division I.
Being a woman, a mother and a lawyer in the early 1980s was still a groundbreaking experience, which led her to make a real difference in how law was practiced, first while working as a deputy prosecutor for King County, where she interned as a law student, then as Chief Criminal Deputy and head of the appeals unit for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's office. Eventually, she moved into the civil division, working on incorporations, land use, contracts, bankruptcy, elder care, labor law and other issues. She argued numerous cases before the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court, including 97 precedent-setting ones.
As a child of the '60s, Quinn-Brintnall initially found it hard to think like a prosecutor. "But I also knew my experience as a woman and a mother could help alter the way things were done in the criminal justice system," she says. In one case, one witness was a young child, whom the defense insisted needed to testify in court. She asked her son how she could make the child more comfortable, and he replied, "You can't. You're too big." So she and her son met with the child in the courtroom one weekend and had a picnic so he would be comfortable in the space. When he was called to testify, he ran up to the witness chair and jumped in. Today, programs have been established to similarly help kids deal with the fear of testifying in court.
Quinn-Brintnall chose to bring her 21 years of experience to the appeals court because the judge who had been appointed to the position had never tried a case, and she didn't see how he could review other lawyers' work without that experience. She plans to run for another term in 2012, and feels the ballot box is the best way to bring good jurists onto the bench. "It's always political, whether it's an open election or an appointment process," she says. "But appointments shift the politics to the back room rather than out to the people."
Quinn-Brintnall keeps personal biases out of her campaigns. She doesn't make policy statements or claims about how she would decide cases. "You can't do this job without being very willing to really listen to the arguments the parties are making," she explains. "If you've already decided how you'd rule, then what's the point?"
The Court of Appeals is a demanding venue. In Quinn-Brintnall's division alone, each judge writes more than 100 opinions per year. So why run for judge? "It's exciting to be part of a system that really helps people resolve disputes," she says. "I had always thought that appeals would allow me to really apply my skills. It requires the ability to think, analyze and take into account so many different areas: human and legal aspects, factual incidents, circumstances. It's a very satisfying and practical way to use my philosophy training."