Edsonya Charles, Muni Court Judge in Heated Reelection Race, Gets Unconvincing Rebuke From King County Bar Association

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Look out: Here comes another blow to Muni Court Judge Edsonya Charles, who is fighting to hold onto her seat on the bench. In a race that keeps getting crazier--and keeps making the court's presiding judge look bad--the King County Bar Association has now weighed in. Yesterday afternoon, the bar said that Charles' comments about opponent Ed McKenna had violated the organization's "rules for fair campaign practices."

The bar is objecting to Charles' repeated claim that McKenna, a city prosecutor, is inappropriately and even illegally involved with a PAC made up largely of DUI defense attorneys, called Citizens for Judicial Excellence. On September 25, Charles filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission alleging that McKenna had been receiving "almost daily assistance" from the PAC--a possible violation of a state law that prohibits candidates from close collaboration with groups that are supposed to be making "independent" expenditures.

"We believe Judge Charles' statements...that her opponent is improperly affiliated with, and if elected, would be beholden to, the DUI defense bar and related organizations, inappropriately create the impression that justice can be bought," reads the statement released by the bar yesterday.

Certainly, the bar's criticism is the last thing Charles needs. Already, her opponent has called attention to the lack of esteem with which many attorneys regard her (even if the city's Ethics and Elections Committee ruled that McKenna can't announce such a thing in the voters' guide). And she lost the support of immigrant advocates by challenging City Attorney Pete Holmes' attempt to tinker with sentencing policy in a way that would spare some petty criminals the fate of deportation. (She later conceded she misunderstood Holmes, but her initial objection is causing consequences throughout the state.)

But does she deserve this latest humiliation? Charles' complaint to the PDC includes some pretty compelling evidence (see pdfs of initial and amended documents) that the Citizens for Judicial Excellence has been intimately involved with the McKenna campaign. In a declaration submitted, a former McKenna campaign manger named Kimberly McCreery says that a woman named Mary Ann Ottinger, who was either the PAC's employee or consultant, regularly participated in strategy discussions and at one point created "talking points" for McKenna. Citizens for Judicial Excellence secretary Patricia Fulton insists that the PAC has not broken any rules, but declines to discuss the material in the complaint, refusing even to say whether Ottinger was a consultant or employee.

The PDC has not yet decided whether to launch a formal investigation, according to spokesperson Lori Anderson.

Even if Charles' allegations are valid, bar organization spokesperson Andrew Prazuch says his organization takes issue with "the fact that she's making the complaint public." Such aggressive campaigning undermines the public's faith in the judiciary, he says. "It starts to look as though [judges] are just a bunch of politicians running for office."

But guess what? They are. That's the system we have, and it would seem Charles has a right to call attention to what may in fact be illegal behavior.

She would also seem to have a right to boast about her tough stance on drunk driving--something else the bar is labeling, without explanation, "improper." Isn't it, in fact, a cliché, sometimes used to argue against electing rather than appointing judges, that candidates fall all over themselves trying to prove they're the "toughest" on crime? (See this statement by Orange County judicial candidate Andy Manssourian.) Prazuch says he can't comment beyond the bar's statement.

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