Candidate raises issue of God in the courtroom

District Court Judge Rick Porter's assertion to a non-religious juror that she had no choice but to swear in under the clause "so help you God" came under fire at a candidate debate last week.

The Clallam County League of Women Voters hosted the debate at the Port Angeles Library's Carver Room on July 20.

Tim Davis, an assistant attorney general from Port Angeles, shared an anecdote at the debate regarding a woman who was made by Porter to sit alone in the jury box after she raised issue with the jurors' oath.

The oath included the phrase "so help you God," he said.

Davis said it was humiliating and wrong of Porter to single out the woman.

"That never, ever happened," Porter responded at the debate, adding this was the first he had ever heard of such an issue.

Gail Smith, of Sequim, says otherwise.

The incident happened on Feb. 17 during a one-day DUI trial, she said.

Smith, who is not religious, was twice sworn in under the phrase "so help you God" with her fellow jurors.

During the lunch break she wrote Porter a note asking about the phrase.

According to a recording of the interaction, Porter began discussing the issue before receiving her note, after hearing about it from the court administrator.

"One of the jurors, and I don't know who, I don't know which one, apparently was very offended by the oath because the oath ... which we're required to use, the oath as it's written says, 'so help you God.'" Porter said. "Which is the way I read it. Well, she was apparently quite offended by that."

Porter began reading the note out loud starting with "akin to so help me Santa Claus," before being interrupted and starting at the beginning.

He read it out loud as follows:

"I was requested twice by this court to swear in - swearing to a - duty (deity) which many skeptics, atheists, agnostics etc. - may find - offensive and inane. Akin to so help me Santa Claus. Many courts have done away with this provision. This can set a juror potentially otherwise - sorry, it's hard to read this - in a difficult position. Please reconsider this silly addition to what swearing is."

Porter told the defense and prosecuting attorneys he was concerned the juror may be so "grievously offended" by the oath that she would be unable to put her personal feelings aside during the trial.

Porter said the clause is "very clearly there" and repeated several times his court does not create the oath or change it.

After the break Smith was brought in and seated alone in the jury box in front of Porter, the attorneys, the defendant and the public.

"The oath that was read to the jury - that particular oath is what comes from the jury instructions, those are promulgated by the Washington State Supreme Court and distributed by the Office Administrator or the court back in Olympia," he said. "So these aren't oaths we just create on our own out here."

Porter said the oath was read verbatim and was the most current form.

Smith's responses are inaudible in the recording.

Porter has been accused of humiliating, scolding and acting belittling toward Smith.

"On and on and on he went," Porter said of Davis' accusations at the debate. "It was not true at all."

Since the recording is strictly audio, any facial expressions, hand gestures and other actions indicating behavior or attitude can not be determined.

Smith said to her the issue is not Porter's behavior, though she was told by an audience member he seemed amused by her note, but rather the separation of church and state and the fact Porter didn't know the law.

According to the Washington State Courts Web site, the phrase "so help you God" is in brackets and optional. Jurors may request the oath without the phrase.

"His court never made it known to prospective jurors that this option was available to them because his court did not know this," she said.

Porter, who now recalls the incident, said Tuesday he did know the clause was optional but he had elected to read the oath the traditional way.

"It's an option for the judge," he said. "The judge can read the oath however he wants."

Porter said he doesn't see it as an issue of separation of church and state.

"The language comes from the script that is authorized by the Supreme Court," he said. "I don't deviate from the script, it is what the script is, I have to use one of them."

Porter said since it has become a big issue in the campaign, he probably will instruct his administrator to ask jurors if they have an objection to the oath including "so help you God."

Porter said Davis used the incident as a "smear campaign" against him.

"He could've listened to that tape himself but instead he took secondhand information from his cronies in the bar association," Porter said.

Davis said Tuesday he thinks Porter was in error when he told the juror the phrase was required by the script.

"I think a smear campaign involves falsehoods and we're talking about the judge's demeanor with people in court and I think everything that's been said has been based upon fact," he said.

Davis said if elected he wouldn't use the phrase because according to the state Supreme Court it is not necessary. On top of that, it can offend jurors or make them feel uncomfortable, he said.

Smith said she is glad for one thing stemming from the matter:

"Judge Porter now knows the answer to my question and others will know they have this option, too, should they wish it."

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