Silencing Aspiring Judges

Muni judge candidate Ed McKenna can't even bring up a negative fact about his opponent in the Voters' Pamphlet, thanks to a state law.

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 told of tongue-lashings or odd monologues from the bench, directed not only at lawyers or defendants, but at any bystander who happens to annoy. Rarely, however, do lawyers go public with their complaints, for fear of offending those who 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 in the November election, wants to disparage the judge in his entry in the official Voters' Pamphlet. State rules prevent candidates, however, from discussing their opponents in the guide—even just to offer a piece of factual information. Last week, McKenna filed an appeal with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission over the rejection of his proposed statement. The disputed sentence: "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, which ranks King County district and municipal court judges in various categories, including legal decision-making, demeanor, and integrity. The most recent survey came out in June. On a scale of one to five, with one the lowest, Charles scored an average of 2.6—about halfway between "poor" and "acceptable." The survey doesn't actually compare the overall averages of all 47 judges evaluated, but McKenna says you can do the math to figure out that Charles came out at the bottom. 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, McKenna, who has worked under three city attorneys including the current one, hesitated to expand on his critique. He said he was bound by professional rules that limit what he can say about judges to factual statements, and he has only personally observed Charles 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 her." Charles, who has served in Muni Court since 2004 and previously worked as a federal prosecutor and advisor to former Mayor Greg Nickels, could not be reached for comment. The state prohibition that McKenna is up against applies different rules to city and county candidates than to those running statewide. Candidates in local races are prohibited not only from saying anything negative about their opponent, but from saying anything about them at all. If you're running for state office, by contrast, you must merely refrain from submitting "false or misleading statements" about your opponent. Why the difference? Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission executive director Wayne Barnett says he hasn't a clue. Tami Davis, the voter education and outreach manager for the Secretary of State's office, also didn't know. One can speculate that maybe it's because candidates for state office have bigger budgets and greater opportunities to reach the public, so a speech free-for-all is more appropriate. As it is, 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. But McKenna's chances of getting his statement through look dim. Barnett points out that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state's speech restrictions in 2003.

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