It was a week before the election, and inside Judge Eileen Kato's King County courtroom, personal fates were on the line. Row upon row of despondent-looking defendants waited their turn for a quick huddle with a public defender and then an appearance at the table before Kato, who would then rule on motions regarding when and how they would be tried. A couple blocks away, in the Seattle Municipal Courthouse, inmates in red coveralls were taking turns offering guilty pleas to Judge Edsonya Charles, who then determined their penalties for crimes such as misdemeanor theft and drunk driving.
Kato and Charles are among the 13 District and Municipal Court judges whose appearance on the Seattle ballot Tuesday was a formality at best. They ran unopposed, as do virtually all judges—virtually all the time. While loud debate and reams of editorials attend races for the state Legislature, Congress, or U.S. Senate, local judges—who arguably have more direct power over the lives of ordinary people than anyone else on the ballot—are mostly left to cruise to undisturbed victories.
Indeed, judgeships at the lower court level seem to be elective almost in name only. Of the eight Seattle Municipal Court judges, for instance, only one originally got her job by winning an election. Sitting judges usually step down sometime in the four years between elections, so their replacements get named by executive appointment. Those new judges then get to run as—of course—incumbents. One Municipal Court judge, Michael Hurtado, didn't even bother to submit a statement for the voters' pamphlet this year.
"It's scary since most of the action—property, family disputes, divorce—is in the court," says public defender Mark Tackitt. "Real people are far more likely to come into contact with the court system than with the state Assembly."
The only bona fide judicial battle in the Seattle area this year was over a District Court seat on the Eastside, where two challengers took on incumbent judge Mary Ann Ottinger, who was bounced in the September primary after having been censured twice by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and suspended from her job.
"Incumbent judges being taken on is not unheard of, but not common," says John Pearson, Washington's assistant director of elections.
"In terms of going up against an incumbent, they have to really mess up," says Darrel Johnson, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat a Seattle municipal judge in 1998.
All of which leaves judges who simply keep their hands clean with precious little accountability. The King County Bar Association, whose ratings are perhaps the primary means for an ordinary voter to judge a judge, generally issues a rating only when a judge is in a contested race. Judges on the King County Superior Court, which hears felony cases, don't even have to appear on the November ballot if no has challenged them.
"These little district courts are like fiefdoms," says a public defender who didn't want to be named. "There are no independent observers that sit there and watch [the judges]. Attorneys don't want to complain—they don't want to screw themselves or their clients."
And that may be one reason judges go unchallenged at election time.
"It's kind of a burning-bridges process," says Tackitt, who ran unsuccessfully against Judge C. Kimi Kondo in 1998 and now calls it "a dumb, dumb thing to do." Tackitt says he has not been called in to serve as a pro tem (i.e., substitute) judge in Seattle since the race, during which his fondness for Civil War re-enactments made ripe media fodder.
Some legal observers question whether ballot-box oversight produces better judges anyway. In the case of Mary Ann Ottinger's Eastside seat, the September primary was won by Richard Pope, a Bellevue attorney who's run for one government office or another 10 times in the last 10 years, according to The Seattle Times, and was rated "unqualified" by the bar association. At press time, the outcome of his race against Frank LaSalata was undecided.
In an open-seat election, "there's no screening of candidates," observes one corporate lawyer who did not wish to be named. "The public—how are they going to know?" she adds. Better candidates come through appointments by elected officials like the mayor and governor, this lawyer believes.
"You don't see a lot of the best attorneys running for a lot of the judgeships," says Darrel Johnson. Most attorneys with a full-time practice already make a salary at least equal to that of a judge, he says, without having to go on the stump. And Municipal Court, in particular, is known for its grueling workload, with cases often involving nasty interpersonal relations, Johnson says.
"A lot of what judges do on a daily basis is not all that exciting," says criminal defense lawyer Neil M. Fox. "It's like, 'Mr. So-and-so, have you done your alcohol treatment?' I would not want to be doing that, but I'm glad there are people who are."