A four-judge majority that was swept into Seattle's Municipal Court a year ago has removed longtime veteran Fred Bonner from his term as presiding judge, but it won't say why.

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Seattle Municipal Court Judge Fred Bonner learned in a terse, two-sentence memo that he was being removed as presiding judge this year.

Bonner, who joined the court as a magistrate almost 30 years ago and was first elected in 1989, was pulled from his two-year position as the courts’ chief administrative judge by four new judges swept into office in November 2010 on a platform of reforming what they said was an inefficient court run by ineffective jurists.

But the judges, who campaigned for openness and transparency in the court’s operations, won’t say why they removed Bonner.

“I don’t think it promotes confidence in the court” to talk about personnel issues, said Ed McKenna, a former assistant city attorney, who defeated two-term Judge Edsonya Charles in an unusually contentious and acrimonious campaign.

Bonner said the new judges objected to his appointment of Charles and a second defeated judge as temporary replacement or “pro tem” judges in Municipal Court. He said the new majority on the seven-member court also sought an active role in the business of the court even before they were sworn in, which he saw as premature.

“They were all about reform without knowing what it was they wanted to reform. The culture when I was elected was for new judges to sit back and learn,” Bonner said.

Judge Judith Hightower, who has served on the Municipal Court bench with Bonner for 20 years, said she was “outraged” by his removal as presiding judge. She characterized the actions of the new judges as “arrogance and ignorance.”

Veterans court an issue

Of most concern to some criminal-defense attorneys who regularly appear in Seattle Municipal Court is the removal of Bonner from a specialized court for veterans. Bonner, a former Air Force staff sergeant, worked over the past five years to develop the court and launch it last October.

The court takes a team-based approach, linking veterans with community resources to address underlying problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, drug use and domestic violence. Rather than immediately impose jail time for misdemeanor crimes, Bonner draws on veterans’ desire to not let another veteran down to encourage treatment and abstinence.

“Not only do I think they’re deserving of our help, I’m pulling for them. They gave their service and sacrifice,” Bonner said.

Defense attorneys who work in Veterans Treatment Court say Bonner has developed a particular rapport with their clients.

“Judge Bonner brings a knowledge and understanding of what veterans have been through and continue to go through,” said Burns Petersen a co-supervising attorney with Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA), a public-defender law firm.

More upheavals

The removal of Bonner as presiding judge is the latest upheaval for a court that has had an unusual amount of controversy over the past few years.

City budget shortfalls forced the court to eliminate one judge in 2010 and to cut its budget by about 20 percent over the past three years, according to court officials.

Judge Ron Mamiya didn’t seek re-election in 2010 after being censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for having a consensual affair with a court employee.

Judge Michael Hurtado was admonished in 2002 and again in 2008 by the commission, most recently for telling attorneys to “shut up” in court.

Charles, who served as presiding judge in 2009 and 2010, alienated much of the City Council by challenging its authority to eliminate a judge. Six council members endorsed her opponent, McKenna, in the race.

It was against this backdrop that four challengers ran for judgeships: Karen Donohue, Steve Rosen, Willie Gregory and McKenna. Criminal defense attorneys raised $200,000 to oust the incumbents, endorsed McKenna and Rosen, and even held a news conference to decry the poor quality of the Municipal Court bench.

The challengers pointed to a 2010 King County Bar Association attorney survey that rated most of the Seattle Municipal Court judges slightly better than “acceptable.”

“What the surveys showed was that attorneys didn’t have confidence in the judges they were appearing before,” McKenna said.

The challengers received “well qualified” or “exceptionally well qualified” ratings from the Bar Association, while the incumbents were rated “qualified.”

In the election, Donohue defeated Hurtado, 74 to 26 percent. McKenna beat Charles 70 to 30 percent. Gregory and Rosen had no opponents.

Bonner said the conflicts with the new judges began almost immediately. They asked to attend the December 2010 meeting of the courts’ judges. Bonner said no, because they weren’t yet sworn in.

They asked to move in their furniture before the departing judges had left. Bonner again said no.

Bonner, as presiding judge, also had the authority to appoint temporary judges to fill in when an elected judge was absent. He appointed Charles, Mamiya and Hurtado.

The new judges objected, but Bonner said that as presiding judge, he had the final say.

Changing of guard

In November 2011, Bonner was notified by the new majority that the judges had voted to remove him as presiding judge. They elected Judge Kimi Kondo to replace him.

Kondo, who joined the court as a magistrate in 1986, named Rosen, who has not served in the military, to replace Bonner in Veterans Treatment Court.

“Everybody should be able to do all the courts and all the calendars,” Kondo said. “It’s not something that any one judge has ownership of.”

The court’s new majority says it is working with court staff to implement reforms promised during the campaign, including making records compatible with other state courts and allowing more court business to be done online. Rosen acknowledges that some of the changes were already under way when the new judges arrived.

Some observers say the court is moving in the right direction.

“The four new judges are really pushing ways to make the calendar go faster and operations go more smoothly,” said Bellevue attorney Diego Vargas.

Others say they are still trying to absorb the sudden change in leadership and the new court assignments. ACA’s Petersen said he was hopeful that Rosen could build the same “rapport and relationships” in Veterans Treatment Court that Bonner had built.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.