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FILE: Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes speaks at a tribal marijuana conference for tribal governments considering whether to legalize marijuana for medicinal, agricultural, or recreational use, Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, in Tulalip, Wash.
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FILE: Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes speaks at a tribal marijuana conference for tribal governments considering whether to legalize marijuana for medicinal, agricultural, or recreational use, Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, in Tulalip, Wash.
Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Seattle head judge asked to step aside in damning letter from city prosecutors and public defenders

In a letter sent to Seattle Municipal Court's Presiding Judge Ed McKenna, both Seattle's top prosecutor and King County's head of public defense have demanded McKenna change his behavior or recuse himself from all criminal cases.

Public defenders and prosecutors usually find themselves at odds — not just in the courtroom, but over policy, ideology and more.

In a surprising show of solidarity, King County's public defenders and Seattle prosecutors asked on Wednesday that the presiding judge of Seattle Municipal Court step aside from his position.

Their letter to Presiding Judge Ed McKenna describes a "self-aggrandizing disregard" for judicial impartiality, pointing to episodes in which they accuse Judge McKenna of urging prosecutors to ask for longer sentences and suggesting he "felt bound to follow prosecutors' recommendations 99 percent of the time."

The letter also suggested that in one case, Judge McKenna may have invited a TV news reporter and a member of an activist group into the courtroom so he could hand down an extraordinary and predetermined sentence.

"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," reads the letter from Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and King County director of public defense Anita Khandelwal.

"We also ask that you step aside as presiding judge," the letter continued. "As long as you remain presiding judge and convene bench/bar meetings, neither the City Attorney’s Office nor the Department of Public Defense will attend."

Judge McKenna said he took issue with the "assertions made by Ms. Khandelwal and Mr. Holmes."

"Having just received the letter, I need time to consider it and I will be issuing a formal response in the near future," Judge McKenna wrote in a statement sent by email.

Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said one incident in particular motivated the courtroom adversaries to come together: a sentencing hearing that convened in early January over the case of Francisco Calderon, a man who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for punching a stranger on the street. Attending the hearing was KOMO's Matt Markovich, executive producer of "Seattle Is Dying" and a Speak Out Seattle activist, according to the letter.

Speak Out Seattle has since said that this activist is, in fact, not a member of their group. She is a member of Safe Seattle, a different group.

The letter alleges that evidence points to Judge McKenna himself inviting the two to attend and prejudging the outcome of the case for their benefit.

Seattle's probation department, the City Attorney's Office and Calderon's public defender all agreed that Calderon, who had a lengthy criminal history, needed mental health and drug treatment.

When Calderon refused to come out of his jail cell to attend the hearing, Judge McKenna issued a "drag order" for jail officers to pull him into the courtroom regardless. McKenna then sentenced Calderon to 364 days in jail.

"While we welcome the transparency that media and public scrutiny bring to court proceedings, we rarely see members of the press or the public watch these proceedings, and their presence in combination with your resort to a drag order raise the specter of a premeditated display," the letter reads.

Holmes and Khandelwal also pointed to comments made last Friday at a Downtown Seattle Association breakfast in which Judge McKenna said he "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," the letter read.

Judge McKenna had additionally pressured prosecutors to demand longer sentences, according to Holmes and Khandelwal.

In conversations with Holmes and other prosecutors, "you have urged the City to request longer sentences so that you can impose a sentence between the City’s and defense’s recommendations," the letter read. "You have complained that you look like 'the bad guy' when you exercise judicial discretion by imposing a sentence above the City’s recommendation."

Khandelwal said she didn't believe anything like the joint demand from public defenders and prosecutors had happened before.

"Even though we're adversaries in the system, we care about appearing before fair, neutral judges," Khandelwal told KUOW.

Holmes agreed. "I can't think of another instance where something like this has happened," he told KUOW. "But I can't think of another instance where I've seen a judge so abuse the office."

Judge Ed McKenna has served on the Seattle Municipal Court since 2011 after spending more than 20 years as a senior prosecutor at the Seattle City Attorney's Office.

Update, 4/25/19, 7 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect the activist's affiliation.