In a rare moment of unity today, Anita Khandelwal, the Director of the King County Department of Public Defense, and Pete Holmes, the Seattle City Attorney, sent a joint letter to Seattle Municipal Court Presiding Judge Ed McKenna accusing him of violating the canons of judicial ethics, judicial bias, and undermining public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.
UPDATE #2: A spokesperson for the City Attorney confirms that their letter should have said Safe Seattle instead of Speak Out Seattle. “It was a mistake and we regret the error.” I have corrected the name in the story below.
The letter makes several accusations of improper conduct by McKenna:
- It says that McKenna has had numerous conversations with Holmes, the head of his criminal division, and several city prosecutors urging them to request longer sentences so that he won’t look like “the bad guy” for imposing long sentences that go beyond the prosecutor’s recommendations.
- It says that last week McKenna gave a speech at a breakfast hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association in which he “suggested that [he] felt bound to follow prosecutors’ recommendations 99 percent of the time,” disregarding defense attorneys’ advocacy for their clients.
- It notes that on January 10, McKenna imposed an extreme sentence on Mr. Francisco Calderon, after issuing a “drag order” requiring corrections officers to bring him to appear in court against his will. This was done in the presence of Jennifer Coats from advocacy group Safe Seattle, and Matt Markovich, KOMO reporter and the executive producer of the highly controversial “Seattle is Dying” video piece. The letter further suggests that McKenna had invited Coats and Markovich to be in attendance, implying that the drag order and extreme sentence were pre-planned before the sentencing hearing. Coats had been present for McKenna’s speech to the North Precinct Advisory Council last November, where according to published notes from the meeting McKenna said that defense attorneys pressure judges to keep the jail population down, that he had concerns about the harm reduction and low barrier approaches to drug addiction because they make it OK to keep committing crimes, that he thinks the LEAD program is not effective, and that he worries that if the new contract between the City and the Seattle Police Officers Guild is not approved de-policing will result.
In a conversation this afternoon, Markovich stated that McKenna did not invite him to the sentencing hearing.
Khandelwal and Holmes request several actions of McKenna, including:
- “adhere to the canons in the future so that parties appearing before you can be assured of receiving a fair hearing before an unbiased judge.”
- “either comport yourself in a way that conforms with the Canons of Judicial Conduct or that you recuse yourself in all criminal matters.”
- “step aside as presiding judge.”
Khandelwal and Holmes also throw down a direct challenge to McKenna’s ability to serve effectively as Presiding Judge of the Municipal Court: “As long as you remain presiding judge and convene bench/bar meetings, neither the City Attorney’s Office nor the Department of Public Defense will attend.”
The closing paragraph of the letter highlights the uniqueness of the situation, as well as the seriousness of the accusations:
The City Attorney and the Public Defender are adversaries in the courtroom and disagree on many matters of criminal justice policy; rarely do we stand together on issues. We do so today because of our shared concern that you are disregarding your duty to act with impartiality and integrity. Recent political turmoil about Seattle’s criminal legal system calls for strict adherence to the judicial tenet of impartiality, rather than self-aggrandizing disregard of it. Those appearing before you deserve nothing less.
McKenna issued a statement this afternoon through a Seattle Municipal Court spokesperson:
I take issue with the assertions made by Ms. Kandelwal and Mr. Holmes. The letter was released to the media before I received it. Having just received the letter, I need time to consider it and I will be issuing a formal response in the near future.
Ed McKenna, Presiding Judge
UPDATE: Matt Markovich released the following statement:
At no point did Judge Ed McKenna invite us into his courtroom to cover the case of Francisco Caulderon.
I had been working on a series of reports about how the City of Seattle deals with habitual offenders weeks before the sentencing of Francisco Caulderon and have done several in the weeks that followed.
What the City Attorney fails to state in his letter – is that in a previous sentencing hearing on January 10th, Judge McKenna questioned the Deputy City Attorney about the plea deal and he was unhappy with it. He signaled that he was thinking of not accepting the plea deal made by the City Attorney and Caulderon’s public defender ( all this is in a court audio recording that I can make available to you).
I was told about this hearing through a non-court source and decided to pursue the case. We followed all the typical procedures to have video news camera in a Seattle Municipal Courtroom.
Both defense council and the deputy city attorney have the prerogative to deny our request to video the proceedings but neither side did.
I had no knowledge of Judge McKenna’s sentencing until it was rendered. Any reporter who had done their due diligence in the case would have researched what happened in the previous hearings with Mr. Caulderon and could see what may happen in the final sentencing.
In addition, we are posting on http://KOMONEWS.com the full unedited interview I did with City Attorney Pete Holmes taped within days of the verdict He is questioned the philosophy of his prosecutions and he shares is criticism of the verdict. I think you’ll find it enlightening.