City Attorney and Director of Public Defense unite to call out municipal court judge on lack of impartiality and integrity (UPDATED)

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  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.



  1. legal topics = way outside my area of expertise… was Superior Court juror once -but that’s about it, and I am pretty confused by this situation.

    1. re: the “bad guy” topic – isn’t it typical for judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to huddle and talk ‘inside baseball’ on legal stuff outside of the courtroom and in shared social circles? are they saying they felt pressured on specific cases? if so, do they have evidence/details re: what was going on? If a more general comment re: legal trends (I think we have been too soft) is that type of comment forbidden?

    2. re: comments at DSA about feeling “bound to follow prosecutors’ recommendations….”
    again, is that a specific quote, or an interpretation of what was said at the meeting? without further of context – I would almost interpret to be a comment re: the circumstances, e.g. “I feel obliged to follow prosecuting attorney suggestions because they often present sound legal arguments given the circumstances”

    3. Re: KOMO crew et al being in the courtroom: based on your description, I am guessing that people(s) in SPD maybe leaked the to the press which gave them the lead to attend? Also –

    Anyway – there are probably some valid points and concerns being raised here – but if the response from the TV crew is accurate (and they have evidence) – that seems like speculation re: the judge’s behavior.

    Regardless, this doesn’t seem like it needed to be turned into some big PR spectacle re: the Seattle legal process – unless I am missing something? If they had concerns with the judge’s behavior, why not approach him directly with concerns, rather than putting together a formal letter, releasing to the press first, etc. Seems like there’s maybe more to the story here – but I am just generally confused. :-/

    1. 1. it is highly unusual for judges and attorneys to have that kind of “ex parte” communications, and for a judge to specifically ask the prosecutors to issue stricter recommendations is grounds to have him removed from any case he’s heard between the day he made that comment and today.

      There are some valid points being raised in the letter, but there’s also a lot of weird stuff. Markovich is denying that he was invited by McKenna, and they also seem to have confused Speak Out Seattle with Safe Seattle. For a letter this inflammatory, you would think they would work extra hard to get the details right. And particularly since it raises concerns that Holmes is being too lenient, this could easily end up backfiring on him.

      We’ll see how it plays out over the next couple of days.

      1. Speaking of highly unusual, I was surprised that such an inflammatory letter would be made public without any formal complaint being filed. It struck me as fishy that Holmes and Khandewal would prefer to launch a fight in the media without submitting to the investigative fact-finding of an ethics commission.

        KOMO’s presence wouldn’t be unexpected even without a leak. We’re talking about the sentencing of a homeless meth addict with dozens of convictions who’s notorious for randomly punching an innocent bystander in the face on a Capitol Hill sidewalk. That would have been a significant story for KOMO no matter what McKenna ruled, especially as a followup to “Seattle Is Dying” and the publication of the prolific offenders report. Given that McKenna declined KOMO’s request for an interview, I believe Markovich when he says that McKenna didn’t invite him.

  2. DPD and Holmes claim it’s unusual for them to team up. Someone should crunch the numbers and see how many times they ask for an agreed recommendation, i.e., a sentence the two sides have agreed to. I think you’ll see that this teaming up happens all the time.

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