On April 25, 1973, Seattle attorney Barbara T. Yanick was sworn in as the first female judge on the Seattle Municipal Court. Her 17-year tenure on the court would inadvertently pave the way for the second woman to join to the bench, according to John Caldbick at HistoryLink.
Born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in 1936, Yanick earned her law degree from the University of Washington School of Law in 1966 and went to work in the King County Prosecutor’s office for a year, before going into private practice.
During her time at the Seattle Municipal Court, Judge Yanick earned a reputation for “ruling with decisiveness; maintaining control and order in the courtroom; industry; and appearing impartial with regard to race, sex, religion, cultural or ethnic origin,” according to a 1978 Seattle Times report on attorney ratings of city judges at the time.
One of Judge Yanick’s rulings related to sex discrimination came in 1975, when she dismissed lewd-conduct charges against two women who had been sunbathing topless. She reasoned that the municipal statute that outlawed such exposure discriminated on the basis of sex because it did not forbid men from baring their chests. Responding to public complaints about the ruling, she was quoted in the Spokesman-Review as saying, “it was a legal decision, not a moral one … I don’t think the ability to lactate is lewd.”
In 1990, Judge Yanick left the bench on a sour note. Although she had recently been diagnosed with cancer for a second time, she still sought reelection to a sixth term. Like the previous four reelection bids, this one was also unopposed give the reluctance of attorneys to run against judges they may appear before in the future. However, in the final minutes before of the last day that candidates could get on the ballot to run for public office, Judge Yanick’s husband threw his hat into the race for his ailing wife’s seat. Despite attempt to justify the move by claiming that it was to continue her health insurance given that the cancer was a pre-existing condition that no other insurance would cover, the move met opposition from would-be contenders.
Judith Hightower, a public defender at the Seattle Municipal Court, wrote-in her name on the ballot and garnered enough votes to contest Judge Yanick’s husband in the November general election. Hightower won the election and became the second female judge to hold a seat on the Seattle City bench.
Throughout Women’s History Month, Emery Reddy is celebrating female lawyers in Washington state who helped advance equality and open the door for other women to enter the profession.