Forget the home-court advantage. When a six-day trial over the future of the Sonics begins Monday, the outcome won't be decided by jurors...
Forget the home-court advantage.
When a six-day trial over the future of the Sonics begins Monday, the outcome won’t be decided by jurors who might harbor memories of the team’s glory days, or influenced by fans rallying on the courthouse steps with former Sonics stars Gary Payton and Xavier McDaniel.
The Sonics’ fate rests with U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman — a no-nonsense courtroom force whom attorneys and friends describe as unlikely to be moved by media coverage, sentimentality or loyalty to the hometown team.
“A lot of us think Marsha is the perfect one for this trial because she could give a rip about sports,” said attorney Rebecca Roe, a longtime friend.
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Roe recalled that several years after Ken Griffey Jr. began playing for the Mariners — and seemingly all of Seattle was buzzing about “The Kid” — Pechman asked friends at a gathering, “Who is this Griffey guy anyway?”
“Everybody in this group — we’re all a bunch of hard-core, maniac fans — assumed she was kidding,” Roe said. She wasn’t.
Pechman’s detachment may be perfectly appropriate for what is legally — leaving aside all the well-publicized questions about the intentions of Sonics owner Clay Bennett and his partners — a contractual dispute between a landlord and a tenant.
The city sued Bennett to force the Sonics to play out the final two seasons left on the lease at KeyArena, through September 2010. Bennett has received permission from the NBA to move the team to his hometown of Oklahoma City, and he says the city should let the team leave now in exchange for a cash buyout.
Cementing her central role in the fate of Seattle’s oldest professional sports franchise, Pechman also has been assigned to the separate lawsuit brought by former Sonics owner Howard Schultz, who accuses Bennett of violating a promise to try to keep the team in Seattle.
Pechman explained her lack of sports knowledge to attorneys in the KeyArena case during the first hearing she presided over in January.
“I mean, I certainly have been to a few basketball games in my life, but I have no knowledge and almost no interest in professional sports. So, if there is something that I am supposed to know or realize about this that is important, you need to tell me,” Pechman said.
She later turned toward reporters at the hearing: “And if the newspaper reports this as ‘Judge Pechman doesn’t care about professional sports,’ you would be wrong. OK. I have no — what I’m trying to express is that, I have no personal stake in professional sports in any way.”
That was a bit of a contrast with the first judge assigned to the case, who clearly followed basketball.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez called arguments by Sonics attorneys “as errant as a typical Shaquille O’Neal free throw,” in a ruling last October denying the team’s request for arbitration to avoid a trial. He was later moved off the case with no explanation offered by court officials.
Pechman, 57, was appointed as a federal judge in 1999 by President Clinton after 11 years as a King County Superior Court judge. Before that she’d been a prosecutor and public defender and a partner in a law firm.
In the early 1990s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was told her chances of surviving were not good. But an experimental stem-cell procedure helped push the cancer into remission. “It has been,” she told The Seattle Times in 1994, “like having a brand-new birthday.”
As a federal judge, she has demonstrated a willingness to rein in what she sees as overreaching government officials. She ruled in 2003 that police had no probable cause to arrest 157 protesters outside the city’s “no-protest zone” during the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle. She blocked the deportation of Somali refugees in 2003, citing that country’s chaos and lack of a functioning government. (The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled such deportations were proper.)
Pechman also has a reputation as a stickler for courtroom efficiency, helping to write court rules and improve jury instructions.
She has shown that in the Sonics case, putting this week’s trial on a strict timetable. Each side in the case will get exactly 15 hours for arguments, witnesses and objections — and Pechman will keep track, down to the minute.
Pechman also has issued strict rules to the media and public for the high-profile trial — banning laptops and other electronic devices, and telling spectators they won’t be able to meander in and out of the courtroom while court is in session. (Cameras and recording devices are barred by federal court rules.)
“First impression, people say she’s tough, but my feeling is ‘God love her’ — everybody is going to be held to the same standard,” said Mike McKay, a former U.S. attorney and a Republican member of the bipartisan selection panel that recommended Pechman as a candidate for federal judge.
“She can come off as stern,” said Jenny Durkan, an attorney and prominent Democrat who also served on the selection panel. “I don’t think she is stern at all, but she has a sense of decorum and no patience at all for people trying to showboat. She thinks of the courtroom as a very serious place.”
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, the chief judge of the Western District of Washington, said no one works harder than Pechman and no one is “more committed to getting to the right answer.”
He said Pechman sees judges — not lawyers — as responsible for “running the cases” in their courtrooms.
At the January court hearing, Pechman laid out just what she expected. She wanted neither side’s lawyers to sandbag the other with surprise witnesses or evidence.
“I want to run the Bolshoi,” she said. “I am not running mud wrestling.”
Of course, the high-profile case hasn’t always gone as smoothly as she would have liked.
In April, after The Seattle Times first reported some of the embarrassing e-mails the city had found between Bennett, his fellow Sonics owners, and NBA Commissioner David Stern, Pechman scolded the city’s attorneys in a conference call about trying the case in the media.
“If she thinks the journalists are wrong, she’ll let them know,” Lasnik said. “If she thinks the lawyers are wrong, she’ll let them know. If she thinks her fellow judges are wrong, she’ll let them know.”
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or seattletimes.com“>firstname.lastname@example.org