Sally Phillips Pasette: Determined Lawyer, Mother, Jurist and Fighter
January 2013 King County Bar Bulletin
Former King County Superior Court judge, attorney and mediator Sally Phillips Pasette, who passed away last summer, was a California girl, known to sparkle in a Raquel Welch-styled bikini in the 1960s. But Sally was a serious person who became a Seattle leader through her intellect, purposeful resolve and deep commitment to public service. Her son Daniel reflects that Sally "was always just quietly deciding what she wanted to do and got along with doing it."
Sally showed her ability to dismantle a problem as a child, when her older sister would seek and follow Sally's considered advice. Sally attended California's public schools and universities, graduating from UCLA in 1966 with a degree in international relations. She wanted to pursue a graduate degree. Because UCLA had no graduate program in international relations, Sally chose law school.
Like other young women of her time, Sally found slim pickings for legal jobs upon law school graduation. Fortunately, right out of law school she passed the California and Arizona bar exams and found a job with the Pima County Legal Aid Society in Arizona. She later said that she "got her first taste for public service" in this position. She worked on reform of the Arizona penal law and handled two landmark due process cases. "It was an exciting era," Sally later would recall. "With all the great cases from the Warren Court, we had tremendous opportunities."1
She and her husband Art Pasette then moved to Seattle so that Art could receive specialty training in gastroenterology at the University of Washington Medical School. Sally tried to get a job as a lawyer. She later observed, "By this time many law firms wanted to have women practicing law with them, but once they had one woman, there was room for no more!"
After weeks of interviewing, Sally received word from the hiring partner of Roberts, Shefelman, Lawrence, Gay and Moch (today's Foster Pepper), that, while there was no associate position for her, she could work on a research project for the firm. As it turned out, this was the foot in the door that Sally needed. She received many more projects and also arranged with the firm to study for the Washington bar exam at the office.
After some time, as Sally told it, the office became used to Sally and apparently forgot she had been a temporary hire. Sally described her eventual employment as an attorney with the firm as short on fanfare, saying, "When stationery had to be reordered, my name was added to the letterhead and later added to the list of attorneys' names on the door." Sally worked there for three years.
Daniel was born in 1973. Sally permitted herself a three-month leave of absence and then relied on live-in nannies. Her daughter Suzanne, known as Suzy, arrived in December 1975. With the nannies' short tenures and feeling tired of sharing the house with them, Sally and Art changed tactics. They hired a recent immigrant from Pakistan to provide daily care. Catherine Fernandes became "an important part of our family," staying on for nine years.
Sally decided to become a sole practitioner in January 1975 so she could control her schedule and hours. She left Roberts, Shefelman and started her own firm, focusing on family law, estate planning and probate. Sally appreciated the "human side" to her practice, saying in 1991, "it gives me great satisfaction to know that I have helped people and made a difference in their lives."2
In the early 1980s, Sally also tackled a new legal issue in Washington: termination of life-support systems. Sally came to prominence in this area of law after representing Joseph Hamlin as guardian ad litem. Hamlin's physicians at Harborview had petitioned to withdraw life support because he had no neurological activity above the brainstem, and no prospects of recovery.
Sally remained Hamlin's guardian ad litem throughout the proceedings that eventually culminated in the Washington Supreme Court's decision in In re Hamlin,3 which established a guardian's authority to consent to withdrawal of life-support systems and outlined appropriate procedures. The Court also implored the Legislature to provide a more extensive framework, which it later did.
As a sole practitioner, Sally also earned respect as a neutral decision-maker, serving as judge pro tem in superior and district courts and as commissioner pro tem in Superior Court. As a hearing examiner for the City of Seattle, Sally decided Fraser v. Seattle City Light. Clara Fraser had sued Seattle City Light for wrongful dismissal based on sex and political ideology.4 The 1980 hearing lasted eight weeks with more than 50 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits. Sally's decision in favor of the employee was affirmed by the Superior Court and widely publicized as a sound decision in The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.5
Sally also served on the panel of arbitrators when mandatory arbitration was introduced to the superior courts and heard about 40 cases as an arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association. Sally learned to pay close attention to the facts, a trait she would carry to the Superior Court bench where she would take extensive factual notes even during jury trials.6
In 1990, Sally was awarded the Seattle-King County Bar Association's Pro Bono Service Award. One of her pro bono clients at the time was a divorcing mother of Indian descent on public assistance. She was fighting for custody of her children against the established financial resources of her ex-spouse and the Indian custom supported by his entire family: the husband retains custody of the children. Sally spent more than 100 hours preparing her case. The eventual victory was hugely satisfying and represented just one of Sally's many pro bono efforts earning her recognition from the bar association.
Sixteen years after Sally hung out her shingle, Gov. Booth Gardner appointed her to the King County Superior Court. Suzy thinks this was Sally's proudest professional moment, fulfilling a goal Sally had set for herself. Suzy also is proud, remarking, "As I get older it has become even more clear how difficult it must have been to maintain such a solid career while raising a family at the same time."
Sally loved the diversity of the matters she handled on the bench. She always gave of her time to act as a settlement judge. To Sally, the job was intellectually challenging and fulfilling. "I learn something new every day," she remarked when serving.7 Attorneys appearing in front of her vouched for how hard she worked.
She was known for performing independent research on her cases, especially for criminal proceedings, which unfolded quickly without a lot of time for ruminating.8 She welcomed the availability of electronic research, remarking in 1995, "I'm on the computer every night at home, going through and reading the cases I know I want to read for the next day, and doing searches."9
Former Justice Bobbe Bridge, the presiding judge on the King County bench during Sally's tenure, remembers Sally as "a great judge." Not only was Sally hard working, but two things stood out: her willingness to be a team player and her view that the job was one of public service.
To Justice Bridge, working as an administrator within the court, these attributes were invaluable: "She never forgot that she worked for the people. She took the job seriously and as one of public service." Justice Bridge also admired that Sally was not risk averse and was willing to try new and different things in the pursuit of justice.
Sally fully supported and volunteered to participate in pilot programs to reorganize how domestic relations matters were handled by the courts, and to initiate childcare within the courthouse for litigants whose children otherwise had nowhere to go and often ended up listening to their parents' issues play out in the courtroom.
Sally won reelection in 1993 but was defeated when seeking reelection in 1997. That's when she opened Pasette Arbitration & Mediation Service. This was, as one of her friends would remark, like making lemonade out of lemons.
For four years, Sally enjoyed the challenges of arbitration and mediation. She took on other challenges, too; fostering her intellect by studying to become a serious bridge player and revitalizing the bridge program at the Women's University Club in the process. This was yet another organization to which Sally devoted many hours. Sally was an improver - of herself and the world around her.
As if professional life was not busy enough, Sally also volunteered in the community. One organization on which Sally left her mark was the Seattle Children's Home, a nonprofit organization assisting children with mental health needs and their families. In 2005, Sally became the co-chair of the Board of Directors. When the home lost its executive director, Sally initiated a nationwide search, flying around the country to interview potential candidates to make sure a committed, qualified leader could be found, all the while keeping tabs on operations back in Seattle.
Sally eventually hired Gena Palm. "She was a brilliant woman," Palm says. "She asked good questions and she expected good answers." Palm recalls that Sally was a great role model for younger members of the board, setting a high bar and demonstrating how they could be effective and help lead the organization to excellence. Justice Bridge served on the board with Sally. "She was a person interested in change, and doing things better," said Justice Bridge. Sally helped lead the Children's Home through some big challenges.10
In 2011, Sally was forced to give up her legal practice due to health problems. While Sally had conquered her times and the professional barriers she faced, and managed them to her satisfaction, some things are not in one's control.
Sally's first health battle began with a lump in the breast. In the 1980s, treatment for breast cancer was experimental. Sally was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985 at age 40. She had two young children. Just as she had summoned her reserves and persevered in the professional arena, Sally embarked on curing her cancer.
As her husband would later say, she never thought the breast cancer would kill her. Such a result was beyond contemplation. She would endure the grueling treatments and she would raise her children. Sally underwent chemotherapy, and once that sickening cycle was complete she underwent radiation. She worked during this time, and Suzy recalls Sally saying work was "keeping her alive." Sally beat the cancer. She would have another 27 years, during which time she ushered her children well into adulthood.
When Sally began to experience symptoms seemingly related to her lungs, it took a while for doctors to diagnose her. But eventually they did. Sally had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,11 a disease in which tissue deep in the lungs becomes scarred over time. The formation of scar tissue is called fibrosis. Eventually, the lungs cannot function properly. Those with "IPF" eventually will suffer respiratory failure. There is no cure other than a successful lung transplant.
Some connect Sally's 1985 radiation treatments to combat breast cancer with her development of IPF, but the cause is unknown. Sally carried on after her diagnosis, becoming more and more reliant on oxygen supplementation 24 hours a day. Unable to qualify for a lung transplant locally due to a newly diagnosed breast cancer that she also beat back, Sally's last hope was to gain admittance to the program run by Duke University. This was a tall task. While one needed to be pretty sick to qualify for a lung transplant, one also had to pass multiple tests of strength to demonstrate the vigor necessary to recover from the serious procedure.
Sally set to work training, building her strength and endurance to the rigorous levels required by Duke. Her dedication and effort, and the successful results they brought, were an inspiration to the community around her. Sally and Art set off to Duke to see what would happen.
Just as she had made hard decisions on the bench and as a board member, Sally did not blink from the tough personal decisions necessary to face her disease. When the staff at Duke readied her for lung transplant surgery, she reassured Art that she had no regrets about this decision. She was fed up with the oxygen tank and did not choose to await suffocation. She had achieved most of the goals she had set for herself in life, including watching her children grow into wonderful people. She was willing to take her chance.
The end of Sally's story is a heartbreaker. To all who had cheered and revered Sally's forceful resolve, who had followed her husband's careful, honest words on Caring Bridge, and who had jumped for joy when her transplant was scheduled, the outcome was an unanticipated dark sky. Where everything had gone so right, the final, necessary step went wrong. "It happens," said the doctors at Duke. Sometimes, organs just do not like their new homes. The transplant did not take. The new lungs did not work in Sally's body.
A celebration of Sally's life was held in August at the Women's University Club hosted by Art, Suzy and Dan. The packed room and the stories shared were a testament to Sally's strength of character, generosity and active life.
Averil Budge Rothrock and her lawyer-husband Ed Budge were married by Judge Sally Pasette in 1994. Sally was a longtime friend of Rothrock's family and a beloved member of the Montlake community. Rothrock focuses her practice on appellate review in the Seattle office of the Pacific Northwest regional firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Yingxi Fu, "Profile: Judge Sally Pasette," Vol. 9 Bar Bulletin at 5 (May 1991).
3 102 Wn.2d 810 (1984).
4 For history on Clara Fraser and the struggle for gender equality at City Light in the 1970s, see http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/citylight.htm. Gloria Steinem is quoted as calling Fraser v. Seattle City Light "the human and civil rights test case of the '80s" - http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/images/citylight/FSP-Report.pdf.
5 Fu, at 6.
8 Dalrymple, R.E., "A Solid Return Policy: King County Jurist Has Advocacy Background," Vol. 4 No. 9 Washington Journal at 12 (February 27, 1995).
10 The Seattle Children's Home recently merged with Novus as a result of strategic planning to combine the resources and strengths of these two programs providing mental health services. The organization is expected to provide a continuum of services to patients in the local community, in addition to offering certain programs throughout the state. Both Justice Bridge and Palm remain involved with Novus, and Sally was able to learn the good news of their merger before she died. See www.novus.org and www.seattlechildrenshome.org for more information on these organizations.
11 IPF affects more than 100,000 people in the United States, with 30,000 to 40,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Typically, the disease is found in people between the ages of 50 and 70 and affects men more frequently than women. There are no proven risk factors for IPF, but a minority of patients have a family history of lung scarring - http://www.ucsfhealth.org/conditions/idiopathic_pulmonary_fibrosis/index.html.