Former Chief Justice of Washington Supreme Court has died of cancer at 64

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Retired Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Elizabeth Fairhurst died in Olympia Tuesday evening. The cause was cancer that had spread from her colon.

Fairhurst died peacefully while surrounded by her family, according to a statement from the state Administrative Office of the Courts. She was 64.

“Mary was the most authentic, loving person I have ever known,” said fellow Justice Debra Stephens. “I’m reminded of the saying that, ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ Mary embodied that, and she was a brilliant justice because she understood that working for justice is an act of love.”

Fairhurst served on the Washington Supreme Court from 2003 until 2020. She retired with one year left of her term as Chief Justice.

In January 2019, Fairhurst addressed Washington lawmakers during a joint session where she announced the return of her colon cancer and that she would keep working while undergoing chemotherapy.

“I want to remind you that time is precious,” she said during the joint session. “For whatever reasons, this is our individual and collective time and place. … None of us know how many days we have to make a difference. This is especially true for me.”

She retired one year later in January.

“It is with a clear head and a sad heart that I have made the decision that it is time for me to leave the Court,” she said in a statement at the time. “It has been my honor and privilege to serve as a justice of this court since 2003, particularly as the Chief Justice for the past three years. I am so proud of the work we’ve done as a branch during this time and feel the time is right to focus on my health.”

Fairhurst was honored at the Inns of Court celebration of excellence award ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., before her retirement.

In March 2019 she was honored by the Washington State Bar Association for her “distinguished lifetime career of achievements that have improved access to justice, gender equality and equity and inclusion in the legal community, and public-oriented innovation in delivery of legal services in the State of Washington.”

She received countless other honors and awards for her dedication to public service throughout her entire legal career.

After graduating magna cum laude from Gonzaga University’s law school, she served as the youngest president of the Washington State Bar Association. The first female majority in the state court was created after she was elected in 2002.

Gov. Jay Inslee offered his condolences Wednesday.

“I am deeply saddened about the loss of Justice Mary Fairhurst,” Inslee said. “She was a talented legal mind, a wonderful, thoughtful person and a dedicated public servant. Mary was deeply committed to her community and was always trying to find ways to support those most in need.

“Throughout her long battle with cancer, Mary remained steadfast and upbeat,” he added. “Her positive attitude and resilience were an inspiration to all who had the pleasure and privilege of knowing her.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson also released a statement Wednesday.

“Mary Fairhurst was an exceptional jurist, legal mind, softball umpire, and friend,” said Ferguson. “She enriched the lives of all who knew her, and made a difference to the people of Washington. Prior to joining the Supreme Court, Justice Fairhurst spent 16 years in the Attorney General’s Office, serving in multiple roles across the office, including division chief. I was proud to know her. My prayers are with her family.”

Ferguson’s office noted that Fairhurst served as an umpire for softball games between the Governor’s Office and Attorney General’s Office in 2017 and 2018.

Fairhurst is survived by “the love of her life” Bob Douglas, six siblings and her large family. Details about her Celebration of Life ceremony will be announced at a later date by the Fairhurst family.

“We do make a difference every day,” Fairhurst said in her 2019 address to state lawmakers. “We make a difference individually and collectively. We make a difference by what we do and by what we don’t do. And we make a difference by how we do it. Every day we get to decide what difference we make. …

“To understand that we hold in our hands the power to change a circumstance, a mind or a life today, right now, is incredible. And we each have that power.”

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