Judicial races often go unnoticed, but a contest for Seattle Municipal Court has erupted into controversy.

Judicial races often go unnoticed, but a contest for Seattle Municipal Court has erupted into controversy as six City Council members, the city attorney and a group of DUI lawyers all are seeking to oust the presiding judge.

Presiding Judge Edsonya Charles came from City Hall, where she was a top adviser to former Mayor Greg Nickels before he appointed her to the court in 2004. But now her relationships with other officials are so strained that many of them have endorsed her opponent, longtime city prosecutor Ed McKenna, in the Nov. 2 election.

Municipal Court judges, who handle drunken-driving cases, assault charges, drug offenses and other minor crimes, don’t often face challengers. After being appointed in 2004, Charles ran unopposed in 2006.

Judicial campaigns don’t draw many donations, but a political-action committee of DUI defense attorneys has contributed $1,600 to McKenna’s campaign and is prepared to spend thousands more to defeat Charles.

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Stephen Hayne, vice president of Citizens for Judicial Excellence, wrote in a recent letter to The Stranger that Charles is “consistently and unnecessarily confrontational, unpleasant, and unwilling to listen — to virtually everyone in her courtroom.”

Charles’ supporters say the attorneys are trying to intimidate judges into ruling their way. They question whether McKenna would be able to make fair judgments in the courtroom after getting so much support from attorneys who would appear before him.

The DUI attorneys are engaged in “character assassination,” said attorney James Tupper, who sits on Charles’ campaign committee.

Tupper has filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission alleging that the PAC’s involvement is illegal, and he and 15 other local lawyers condemned the effort at a news conference Tuesday. They called on McKenna to return their donations.

None of those who signed the letter practice in Municipal Court, according to Tupper.

Charles’ opponents in City Hall say they are fed up with what they see as an uncooperative approach.

When City Council members seeking budget cuts ordered an audit to see how many judges the court needs, judges refused to cooperate.

Charles said only the state Supreme Court can study judicial workload. She later asked the state Supreme Court to do such a study, and she said that it confirmed the municipal court had the right number of judicial officers.

When the City Council decided to cut a judge, Charles fought it and used city money to hire a private law firm to represent the court.

“Our original proposal was to eliminate two judges, and I think our analysis would have justified that,” said City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who chairs the council’s public-safety committee and has endorsed McKenna. “It was not helpful to be told that we were … going to be sued or that we were acting outside of our authority.”

The council ultimately cut a retiring judge’s position without removing any of the three state-mandated judicial departments. Charles said she didn’t oppose eliminating a judge, but their approach to cutting a Municipal Court department and a retiring judge violated state law.

City attorney’s idea

City Attorney Pete Holmes said that after he supported the council’s move, Charles cut back on meetings with his office to schedule cases. His attorneys, he said, were “verbally abused” in open session by Municipal Court judges. He offered Charles a staff lawyer, but she insisted on hiring someone from Perkins Coie, he said.

So when Holmes got a call from McKenna asking which judge he should challenge, Holmes said he told McKenna to run against Charles.

Charles says criticisms of her from City Hall are politically motivated and unfair. She is willing to make cuts to her budget, she said — she just cooperated with Mayor Mike McGinn to propose an 8.5 percent cut in 2011 — but she has to be able to protect the mandated duties of the court.

Charles said the DUI attorneys who oppose her think she is too hard on their clients.

PAC Secretary Patricia Fulton dismisses that.

“She treats DUI cases no differently than any of the other judges,” Fulton said. “… We are not looking for judges who will be soft on DUIs.”

Charles called the PAC’s involvement in the race “a threat to the justice system.”

“It’s an organizational and systemic effort really to control the system in a way that I think is inappropriate,” she said, adding that she is a fair judge, and not “beholden to special interests.”

McKenna said that as a “tough but fair” prosecutor in the City Attorney’s Office, he has been the opponent of DUI attorneys and spent 20 years making their lives “miserable.” And he has rarely appeared in Charles’ courtroom, so he didn’t have a personal beef with her.

“She had a reputation, at least among prosecutors, and I had heard that she wasn’t particularly well-liked by the City Council,” McKenna said.

Tupper’s complaint to the state says McKenna talked with a consultant for the PAC and that the PAC promised him money if he ran against Charles.

“It is a bright line … We don’t want our judges beholden to anyone in terms of how they conduct their jobs,” he said. “Frankly, it’s disgusting. It’s disgusting that Ed McKenna crossed that line before he ever filed against Judge Charles in this race.”

Both Fulton and McKenna say the allegations are false.

Citizens for Judicial Excellence has raised more than $200,000. The PAC has endorsed five candidates. PAC leader Fulton wouldn’t say how much money the group intends to spend on McKenna’s race.

Asked specifically what PAC members dislike about Charles, Fulton cited a King County Bar Association survey that ranked Charles lowest among district and municipal court judges in King County.

The 56 attorneys who responded to the survey rated Charles low on courtroom demeanor and understanding of the law. They gave her low marks on maintaining control of the courtroom and being attentive and prepared, among other things.

Charles dismisses the survey as an “Internet poll” with low turnout. She said the DUI attorneys who politically oppose her influenced the timing of the poll so they would have an advantage in responding to it.

The attorneys “made up a story about me,” she said, “and then viewed me through a lens to make it true.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com