The dirty little secret of Seattle Municipal Court, according to attorneys who work there, is that many of its judges are incompetent, rude or downright bizarre. In private conversations, stories are legendary about tongue-lashings or odd monologues from the bench, directed not only to lawyers or defendants but any bystander that happens to annoy. Rarely, however, do lawyers go public with their complaints, for risk of offending those that rule on their cases.
Now city prosecutor Ed McKenna wants to do so--but can't.McKenna, who is running against Muni Court Presiding Judge Edsonya Charles (pictured above) in the November election, is trying to disparage the judge in the voters' guide. State rules prevent candidates, however, from discussing their opponents in the pamphlet.
McKenna yesterday filed an appeal with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission over the rejection of his proposed statement. The disputed sentence is this:
I believe the citizens of Seattle deserve better than a judge who was rated the very lowest in a recent King County Bar Association judicial evaluation survey.
McKenna is referring to a survey of lawyers conducted every four years by the bar that ranks King County district and municipal court judges in various categories, including legal decision making, demeanor and integrity. The latest survey (see pdf of the bar's judicial rankings) came out in June. On a scale of one to five, with one being the lowest, Charles scored an average of 2.6--which put her about halfway between "poor" and "acceptable."
The survey doesn't actually compare the overall averages of all 47 judges so evaluated, but McKenna says you can do the math to figure out that Charles is the lowest of all. Few of Seattle's Muni judges scored well, incidentally, the exception being Jean Rietschel, who has since been appointed to King County Superior Court and is now up for election to that position.
Reached by phone this morning, McKenna hesitates to flesh out his criticism of Charles. He says he is bound by professional rules that limit what he can say about judges to factual statements, and he has only personally observed her a handful of times. But he does say that "prosecutors have told me that they get physically ill when they have to appear in front of [Charles]."
Charles, who has served in Muni Court since 2004 and previously worked as a federal prosecutor and advisor to former Mayor Greg Nickels, was on the bench this morning and could not be reached for comment.
McKenna is basing his appeal to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission in part on the fact that he does not name his opponent in the disputed sentence, which seems flimsy. As Commission executive director Wayne Barnett basically says in his letter to McKenna on the matter, you'd have to be an idiot not to know the identity of the judge in question. McKenna's chances of getting the sentence through are further dimmed, as Barnett points out, by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upholding the prohibition on dissing opponents in the voter's guide.
But McKenna frets that if he can't talk about Charles in the guide, he won't be able to get the word out to voters, who pay attention to little else in a down-ballot judicial race. He argues that the ban on discussing opponents has kept dubious Muni judges on the bench, noting that this is the first time in 12 years that one has faced an election challenge.