City attorney and public defender call for judge to step down after accusations of partiality

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hangin up the gavel

Photo illustration by Sara Wadford/Shutterstock.

Updated: In an unusual show of solidarity, Seattle’s top prosecutor and public defender are asking the presiding municipal court judge to change his behavior and step down.

In a letter sent Wednesday, City Attorney Pete Holmes and Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal accuse Judge Ed McKenna of improper conduct, arguing that he has “repeatedly made statements that undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary,” the Seattle Times says.

On April 19, McKenna spoke at a downtown event, where he said he “felt bound to follow prosecutors’ recommendations 99 percent of the time,” Holmes and Khandelwal say.

They also contend that McKenna pressed Holmes and assistant prosecutors to seek more jail time when recommending sentences for defendants and that those conversations took place outside of the presence of defense counsel.

“You have urged the city to request longer sentences, so that you can impose a sentence between the city’s and defense’s recommendations,” Holmes and Khandelwal write in the letter. “You have complained that you look like ‘the bad guy’ when you exercise judicial discretion by imposing a sentence above the city’s recommendation.

“As a judge, you have the authority to impose any lawful sentence once a defendant is convicted and are not required to follow the city’s sentencing recommendations.”

Their letter also references the judge’s January sentencing of Francisco Calderon, who was convicted of misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to 364 days in jail, the maximum sentence allowed by law and one that is rarely imposed in Seattle Municipal Court, they say.

McKenna invited KOMO news reporter Matt Markovich and activist Jennifer Coats to the proceeding, where he also had Calderon brought against his will. They say this suggests the judge made up his mind before the parties had the opportunity to present their arguments.

“It is imperative parties in Seattle Municipal Court appear before judges who appreciate the importance of judicial ethics,” Holmes and Khandelwal write in the letter. “We request that you either comport yourself in a way that conforms with the Canons of Judicial Conduct or that you recuse yourself in all criminal matters. We also ask that you step aside as presiding judge.”

Holmes and Khandelwal told the Seattle Times that they have not filed a formal complaint with the Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct.

McKenna worked in the City Attorney’s Office for 21 years, according to the Seattle Times. He has been a judge since 2011 and has no record of discipline by the commission.

In a formal response April 25, McKenna said he would not step down as presiding judge.

He denied making the statement “suggesting that I personally felt ‘bound to follow the prosecutor’s recommendation’s 99% of the time’ ” at the downtown Seattle event referred to in Holmes and Khandelwal’s letter.

“Further, the record does not support any suggestion or inference that I disregard the advocacy of defense counsel,” he added.

McKenna also denied specifically inviting Markovich and Coats to Calderon’s sentencing.

“I categorically deny your allegations that I have violated the Cannons of Judicial Conduct by initiating invitations to my court and by predetermining a sentence,” he said. “Both individuals you reference have publicly denied any invitation on my part to observe the case or any form of sentencing collusion as you infer.”

McKenna did not address allegations that he urged prosecutors to request longer sentences in his response.

“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 said.

Updated May 2 at 4:20 p.m. to include the formal April 25 response from Judge Ed McKenna.

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