A Seattle Municipal Court judge accused of improper conduct by the city’s top prosecutor and public defender said Thursday he won’t step down as presiding judge. In a formal response, Judge Ed McKenna denied some allegations against him and asked for more specifics.
In an unusual show of solidarity Wednesday, City Attorney Pete Holmes and Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal alleged McKenna had undermined public confidence in the court by violating judicial-conduct rules. They asked him to quit his leadership post and to change his behavior or recuse himself from all criminal matters.
In a letter, Holmes and Khandelwal said McKenna had pressed Holmes to recommend more jail time for defendants, had spoken inappropriately in public about his decision-making on sentences for defendants and had played politics with a particular case involving a repeat offender.
The backdrop is a debate raging across Seattle about what combination of jail time and services are needed to deal with people — some of them struggling with homelessness, addiction and mental illness — who are arrested over and over again.
McKenna has staked out a hard-line position compared with Holmes and Khandelwal. Seattle Municipal Court handles only misdemeanor crimes.
“I am declining your suggestion to step aside as Seattle Municipal Court’s Presiding Judge,” McKenna wrote in his response to Holmes and Khandelwal. “I was elected to this position by my peers and enjoy continued support from the bench.”
McKenna didn’t respond directly to what might be the most serious accusations — that the judge has repeatedly urged prosecutors to request longer sentences.
“You have complained that you look like ‘the bad guy’ when you exercise judicial discretion by imposing a sentence above the City’s recommendation,” Holmes and Khandelwal wrote.
The judge described those allegations Thursday as “too vague for a detailed reply.”
“However, if you wish to provide me with information on hearings or trials that my statements have interfered with, I will certainly review the matters and respond appropriately,” he wrote.
Although Holmes and Khandelwal in their letter accused McKenna of violating two canons of judicial conduct, they haven’t filed a formal complaint with the Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct. McKenna, who worked in the City Attorney’s Office for 21 years and has served as a judge since 2011, has no record of discipline by the commission.
In their letter, Holmes and Khandelwal also objected to remarks made by the judge at a recent Downtown Seattle Association event.
“You suggested you felt bound to follow prosecutors’ recommendations 99 percent of the time. This suggests the very opposite of impartiality — and that you disregard the advocacy of defense counsel,” they wrote.
In his response, McKenna said there was nothing wrong with him speaking in public and rejected the characterization by Holmes and Khandelwal of his remarks.
“Most citizens are appreciative when I provide a judge’s perspective on the criminal justice system,” he wrote, denying that he made the “99 percent” statement as quoted. “Further, the record does not support any suggestion or inference that I disregard the advocacy of defense counsel.”
Previously, McKenna was quoted saying something similar in a February TV interview with Q13 FOX: “99% of all cases are resolved by way of a plea agreement or an agreement between the defense and prosecutor. We make a presumption that the prosecutor knows the facts and circumstances.”
Holmes and Khandelwal lastly took issue with how McKenna handled the sentencing in January of Francisco Calderon, who struck a stranger on a downtown street last year and had been previously convicted of dozens of crimes.
Rather than order Calderon a mental-health evaluation, substance-abuse treatment and two years of probation and release him with time served, as recommended by a plea deal, McKenna sentenced him to the maximum 364 days in jail.
Holmes and Khandelwal accused McKenna of acting improperly by apparently inviting an activist member of the public and a television reporter to the event, suggesting the judge improperly made up his mind before hearing from the parties in the case.
“I categorically deny your allegations that I have violated the Canons of Judicial Conduct by initiating invitations to my court and by pre-determining a sentence,” McKenna wrote Thursday.
Jennifer Coats, a Seattle resident active on the Facebook page Safe Seattle, and KOMO-TV reporter Matt Markovich have both denied the judge asked them to attend the Calderon hearing in particular.
McKenna closed his response with a warning, citing a rule prohibiting statements that a lawyer “knows to be false … concerning the qualifications, integrity or record of a judge.”
“I intend no actions and I’m not asking you for an apology. I simply ask that each of you initiate an effort to publicly correct your errors,” he wrote.
Holmes and Khandelwal don’t seem to be backing down. In a joint statement Thursday, they said their concerns have not been assuaged.
“He doesn’t dispute pressuring the prosecutor to seek harsher sentences,” they said. “He doesn’t dispute making a spectacle of Mr. Calderon’s sentencing. We remain deeply concerned and are evaluating our options.”