Bobbe Bridge is a former Associate Justice of the Washington Supreme Court, and a dedicated volunteer and philanthropist who has been honored with numerous awards for her civic involvement and service to children and youth. Justice Bridge was appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court in 1999 after serving 10 years as a King County Superior Court Judge. In 2006, she resigned her judgeship to assume the role of Founding President and CEO of the Center for Children & Youth Justice (CCYJ), a private nonprofit organization that advocates for child welfare and the juvenile justice systems in Washington State.
WSJHS: I wanted to begin by asking about your background.
BOBBE BRIDGE: I was born and raised in Seattle. My father was originally from New Jersey. He was in Seattle during the war when he met my mother, who was also born and raised in Seattle. My family emigrated from Ireland and what was Czechoslovakia in the early 1900s.
WSJHS: Do you come from an observant family?
Bridge: I would say reform spiritually and observant culturally.
WSJHS: Were Jewish values things you talked about in your house? Were they important to you?
Bridge: Certainly values of social justice, tikkun olam, fairness, hard work, family—all of those kinds of Jewish values, absolutely.
Bobbe at six days old, in 1944
Bobbe and parents, 1945
WSJHS: Did your parents go to college?
Bridge: No, I was the first in my family to go to college.
WSJHS: How did you end up choosing law as your profession?
Bridge: That’s kind of an interesting story. As I said, I was the first in my family to go to college. I really liked being a student, and teaching was an opportunity to learn and still make money. I didn’t feel called to K-12, so college teaching was where I headed. I graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Political Science and went to the University of Michigan for a graduate degree. I was on track to complete a doctorate in Political Science with an emphasis on American government and a sub-specialty in judicial politics. I was always fascinated by law, but I didn’t know any lawyers and it was not something that I thought I could afford to do, but there I was in Ann Arbor with a masters and a grant to do work for my dissertation on juvenile justice. At that time, in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, there was great deal of change being brought to the world of juvenile courts. Lots of different cases were being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, the thrust of which was to introduce many of the adult criminal due process rights into juvenile court. Juvenile court didn’t look at all like most courts did in those days: The proceedings were in chambers as opposed to being out in a courtroom, there were no juries or lawyers, the judge frequently didn’t wear a robe, and the young person would be there with a probation officer (in the State of Washington, we call them “probation counselors”). The judge would presume that the child had done the crime of which he or she was being accused, and proceeded accordingly to “fix” the child. It’s a social work model and one which the founders of the early juvenile courts in the beginning of the 20th century held dear. The idea was that children shouldn’t be treated like adults, which of course, science now tells us is exactly true, but their solution was to take them out of the adult system, because it was pretty harsh at the beginning of the 20th century.
By1970-ish, people began to worry whether children were being treated fairly and why was the presumption not of innocence but of guilt. All of these various rights were being introduced, so there was a lot of turmoil which I thought would be very interesting to study, so I got a three-year grant to study juvenile courts in Walla Walla County and in King County. I interviewed and observed the stakeholders (judges, lawyers, and the kids themselves) as to how they felt about the proceedings, with my objective being to discern whether or not the introduction of these rights in King County had any difference on a kid’s attitude about how they were being treated versus the old way of doing things in Walla Walla County. During my study, I was introduced to lots of lawyers and got a lot of encouragement, particularly from one judge who became a mentor for me. He encouraged me to get out of the back of the courtroom observing, and instead go to law school and become a lawyer. So I did! I had intended that I would be a lawyer that represented kids; I didn’t really care whether that was as a prosecutor or public defender. I thought prosecutors had the ability to make a lot of change, so even if that was the route, I would love to do that; or, of course, be a public defender and actually represent the kids themselves.
But that didn’t happen. After an internship, I ended up at Garvey Schubert Barer where I stayed for 14 years. The judge who I mentioned was my mentor was Charles Z. Smith, the first African American judge in the State of Washington. He was a great mentor to me then and carried through my years as a practicing lawyer. I ended up spending my first two years on the Washington State Supreme Court with him as my colleague.
WSJHS: I interviewed U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein and she talked a bit about her experiences as a woman in law school and the fact that she couldn’t really find a job when she finished law school. Did you face similar challenges? I think you’re probably a decade later than her, so things may have changed.
Bridge: Yes they had. Were all things equal back then? No. Are things still? No. But I think that because of people like Barbara Rothstein, I did have an easier path. I also had a wonderful law firm. It was very small, but it had a great sense of pride in giving back to the community. There was a culture of belief that being a lawyer was a privilege and we had the obligation to pay back to our community; there was a kind of tikkun olam spirit. Stan Barer had hired me, who I had first met in 1963 when I was a sophomore at the University of Washington. He was working for Congressman Brock Adams and I was taking a political science course, which required me to volunteer for some political campaign, so I chose Brock Adams who I had held in the highest degree of esteem. Stan and I had lost track as he was in law school at the time when I was beginning undergrad, but during the summer of ’75 I was applying to be a law clerk. I got an offer from Garvey Schubert Barer, and it was Stan Barer who interviewed me—amazing coincidence—where I had the time of my life. I was the first woman who had been a law clerk at Garvey, and I ended up being the first woman associate and the first woman partner. It was a great experience and Stan is still a great mentor and one of my closest friends. So it was much easier for me.
WSJHS: You were at Garvey for 14 years and then went to the bench?
Bridge: To the King County Superior Court, yes.
WSJHS: How did that happen?
Bridge: I knew that I was ready to do something else. I indicated earlier that there was a culture at Garvey Schubert to be active in your community, which was unusual in the early 80s. I think that today there is a high degree of commitment in the legal community in the State of Washington and in King County in particular. Law firms, large and small, give back to their community and have very vibrant pro-bono programs, which need not be with legal representation, the classic pro-bono activity; it could be serving on a nonprofit board or volunteering in a soup kitchen, just so long as you are engaging in your community. So I had a lot of experience doing board work, some of which reengaged me in the juvenile court issues. I got the itch to do some kind of public service full time, and in 1987 I was entitled to three months off through the sabbatical program at Garvey Schubert. At that time, I decided I was going to run for the King County council. I took on an incumbent and lost, but I realized that it was what I wanted to do.
Another great mentor for me, my mother-in-law, Shirley Bridge, said “this may turn out to be a blessing.” She told me to stop thinking about the job, and just think about what I’m interested in and what I would like to accomplish. Of course, she was exactly right because in spite of being a lawyer and kind of obsessive-compulsive about a lot of things, I’m not necessarily a person who plans everything. I certainly didn’t plan my career; I kind of landed in these places. I wrote down a list of things and she looked at it and said I should be a judge. Over a couple of year period, I got to think more and more about it, I spoke to friends of mine—women—who were judges and asked them how they liked it. Then I decided this was worth a shot—it also kind of circled back to my graduate school days of studying judiciary. I was selected by then Governor Booth Gardner for a vacancy that was left by John Riley, a judge who retired mid-stream. Basically, he had said he had presided over too many trials where guns have killed people or have otherwise ruined the lives of everybody in the courtroom, so that he could no longer be objective as a judge and needed to be an advocate instead.
"So I took his seat and loved every minute of my work as a trial court judge, and I felt very blessed to have had that opportunity; I was able to be an advocate for things that I cared about in the sense that I could improve the legal process as a judge."
Jon, Bobbe, Shirley, and Herb
WSJHS: Did you get to focus on juvenile issues?
Bridge: I did. I spent approximately 4 ½ years in juvenile in the mid-‘90s, which was a very challenging time and not so different as to what’s happening now, although we have very low juvenile crime rates today. At the time, juvenile crime rates were high and the mood of the body politic was to “get tough” on these kids regardless of their age. “Kids are super-predators” was the terminology used by some social scientists, and there were a lot of harsh sentencing, statutes, and legislation being passed. For example, when it came to sentencing, the juvenile court judge typically had discretion—“individualized justice” was the phrase—not just a standard sentencing range, in which you couldn’t really deliver the right kind of package that would hopefully help this young person off the track of crime and on the way to a successful adulthood. A lot of that discretion was taken away from judges, with the idea that judges were too soft and that’s why this was running amuck, so it needed to be reined in. Judges were politicized in that period, I think, and our code of conduct does allow us to speak on issues pertaining to the administration of justice. In a generic way, we couldn’t talk about whether a specific crime shouldn’t have a certain kind of sentence, but about the general concept of whether we should have more individualized justice. So for the first time, the Superior Court Judges Association of Washington created a legislative committee and I chaired it. We spent a lot of time on juvenile issues and we were at the table speaking from our experience—we weren’t always able to take a position one way or another, but we were advising the legislators to take certain things into account, as “this is what we’re seeing” and “this is what we think is best.” So I had a great opportunity to do all of that from a state-wide perspective through the Association of which I became president in the latter part of the 90s, right before I went up to the Supreme Court.
WSJHS: How did you end up going up to the Supreme Court?
Bridge: That was one of those opportunities where I didn’t think that it was the right move. Unlike when I was contemplating the move from private practice, when I certainly had not learned everything I needed to know about the practice of law, but I had had the great opportunity at Garvey Schubert to do a variety of areas of law, so I felt ready. But this I wasn’t ready for. I thought I had a lot left to do at the Superior Court level and I enjoyed my work immensely. But Barbara Durham retired and left a vacancy on the court and then-Governor Gary Locke was accepting applications and letters of interest, and I was encouraged by a number of people to go for the vacancy. I said to them that there’s no question it would be a great honor and a great opportunity, but I don’t think it’s me. But I thought about it more and said “okay” and Governor Locke agreed. The opportunity to get back to more of an academic posture, although it’s judging, it’s also learning, researching, and writing, so it’s a very different role than judging at the Superior Court level. But I was very blessed—it was a fabulous opportunity serving with Charles E. Smith, and I learned a lot.
WSJHS: Judges play an important mentorship role with their clerks. Was mentoring something that you enjoyed?
Bridge: I did, indeed—and I still do. I’ve been a part of a formalized program for women at the University of Washington Law School since I was at Garvey Schubert, where they put together practicing lawyers and judges to mentor first-year law students. I’ve done that for years and I love it. Annually during the holidays, I host a lunch and bring everyone together. It’s particularly neat for the newest first-year law student to see what has happened with the others, and show them that there is life after law school, and people really do survive this. Some of them are still practicing law and some of them are now stay-at-home moms, so they see the variety that’s open and it’s really is a good experience for them.
WSJHS: That’s wonderful. That must create a great network for them.
Bridge: I hope so. It helps them to explore job opportunities and be in the right positions for internships as well as full-time jobs. It makes me feel really good to be a part of it.
WSJHS: How did you make the decision to move from the bench into CCYJ?
Bridge: That was more intentional on my part. In 2005, I decided that I was not going to run for reelection in 2007, and I thought about weaving together these experiences of what the political system’s change had on the network that I had developed, from both my Superior Court Judges Association roles, in addition to my roles on the Supreme Court, and then return to my roots in juvenile court. I figured I had one more gig in me, so I thought about a variety of ways in which I could do that. When I was contemplating this, I learned that all of these kids shared so many of the same needs and experiences, whether they came in on the juvenile justice side or whether they came in through the door of child abuse and neglect. In child welfare, they really were the same kids and yet these systems didn’t talk to one another, they didn’t share resources, they weren’t learning from one another. So how could I bring that to a business, as it were? I looked at a couple of models across the country, one of which was the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, run by Bob Schwartz. It was focused originally on juvenile justice and later added some elements of child welfare. So I thought that I could have the opportunity to do something similar, and my husband and I were prepared to invest and kick it off. So we started in the latter part of 2006; I went in as chair of the board, and my husband was a board member. By the spring of 2007, we had developed a work plan that included supporting Early Connections, this birth-to-three-year child welfare model. Meanwhile, we were developing a work plan for models for change. In May of 2007, we announced the counties that had been selected to be our partners and models for change, and I announced at the end of the year that I was going to leave the Supreme Court and go to work full time at CCYJ. So that’s how it all came together.
WSJHS: For those who aren’t familiar with your goals and mission, what is CCYJ?
Bridge: The Center for Children in Youth Justice is a 501-c3 nonprofit whose mission is to improve the outcome for kids and youth who are in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. We do that by improving those systems and trying to make them be more research-based and data-driven with respect to their interventions and relationships with these kids, so that we are focused on the kids themselves. We look at areas where those populations don’t seem to be doing well after they had been touched by these systems. As a matter of fact, these systems tend to be a negative experience for them.
"What I think CCYJ does best is bringing people together to learn how they might change a particular practice, policy, or legal process in the way that would improve those outcomes for kids. Sometimes the hypothesis of “changing the policy practice process to make things better for kids” comes from research or experience, or sometimes it’s a replication of something somewhere else where their numbers showed great outcomes for kids. So we all learn together to see whether this could work somewhere in our territory, the State of Washington."
We help them through memoranda of understanding and documents they need to come up with, and sometimes that’s writing the policy itself. We then either come with a grant or funding, or we help to raise the funding altogether in order to accomplish this. Lastly, we then manage them through a pilot. If we come out with good metrics, we’ve got success and we help them to sustain it.
We have one part of our organization, our body of work that is an exception to that rule called Lawyers Fostering Independents that started with a very small grant from the American Bar Association. Our mandate from that grant was to find ways to engage lawyers in something that would help young people who were aging out of the foster care system to not have the rotten outcomes that just set their life on a bad path. For example, compared to their non-foster age group, they were more likely to be homeless and unemployed, and they were more likely to have unaddressed mental health issues. So we brought stakeholders and veteran voices of the youth themselves together to talk with us about their experience and offer up recommendations. We came up with the idea of a pro-bono legal service where we would recruit, train, and retain a group of lawyers who would agree to do volunteer civil legal services for young people between 17 to 25 years of age. We tested it out for a period of a year in which we were successful; we resolved housing issues and educated social workers and social service agencies.
We learned that our lawyers really liked the idea of being engaged with CCYJ, which was doing other things in the area of child welfare and juvenile justice that wasn’t just a lawyer’s organization; we were looking at reform of two legal systems, we were doing it with staff that was not all lawyers, and we were doing it on not just the purely court system, but other aspects of these systems. So it’s been remarkably successful. We served over 200 young people last year, which was a record year for CCYJ. We are now expanded to Snohomish County, soon we’ll be in Pierce County, and we know that we need to go to eastern Washington because there is need there as well. We’ve added many more social service agency partners whose staff are trained by us to identify what might be a legal issue, which is really important. For example, a social worker hears a child explain to them that they’re about to get evicted from their apartment—their first impulse is to find them another apartment, and our first impulse is to keep them in the apartment and ask why they are being evicted, and whether the landlord has real grounds. This way, the legal fix may be a more permanent one than the social worker to keep finding new places for this young person to live. It’s kind of our method of operation that once we prove something up, we’ll try to implement it into the system and adopt it that way.
WSJHS: It seems like you’ve really gone full circle; you’ve gotten back to an almost academic setting where you can really study, as you intended to do.
Bridge: Yeah, it’s a nice blending of that academic side and activism.