One of the many peculiarities of the United States governmental system is that in many states, including Washington, voters decide who gets to sit on the judge’s bench. Elections for positions on the Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) tend to be uneventful affairs, with most candidates running unopposed.
However, this year, two incumbent judges are facing tough challenges from lawyers who have worked within the system: Judge Damon Shadid will face off against Assistant City Attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins and Judge Adam Eisenberg against public defender Pooja Vaddadi. These contests are set in the context of a recent shift in leadership at the City Attorney’s office, with Republican Ann Davison taking over at the start of 2022 after 12 years of Democratic leadership under former City Attorney Pete Holmes.
The SMC handles misdemeanor offenses committed in the city of Seattle that are prosecuted by the City Attorney. Many of these cases tend to be lower-level offenses, such as petty theft, assault in the fourth degree, DUIs and trespassing. Under Davison’s watch, prosecutions have surged back to pre-pandemic levels. Black, Indigenous and poor people continue to be disproportionately tried in the court.
Shadid is running for a third term in office, and Rose-Akins is an assistant city attorney, prosecutor and temporary King County District Court judge who has worked under Holmes and Davison.
Shadid made headlines in April when he initially opposed a proposal from Davison to exclude more than 100 people who are frequently involved in the criminal legal system from participating in community court, an alternative program that offers some defendants services instead of jail. In the end, Davison got her way, and the defendants were barred from participating in community court. The City Attorney believed they have a “disproportionate impact” on public safety issues in the city.
A big focus of both candidates was on community court and whether more “therapeutic” approaches to low-level misdemeanor crimes are appropriate.
In an email to Real Change, Shadid claimed a number of accomplishments, including establishing community court in Seattle in 2019, revamping the city’s mental health court and creating a consolidated calendar that made it easier for workers with programs such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion to advocate on behalf of their clients. If re-elected, Shadid wrote that he would work to create a “Jail Release Toolkit” to implement lessons he has learned from therapeutic court into mainstream courts as well.
Over email, Rose-Akins pledged to increase monitoring of community court “by incorporating more probation and social service support to track and assist with an individual’s progress.” She said that the municipal court must partner most with social service providers and businesses so that people can obtain better services and ensure they complete their court obligations.
When asked what role a judge could play to address the economic disparities faced by SMC defendants — roughly 87 percent of defendants relied on public defenders, meaning that they were too poor to hire an attorney — the candidates diverged in their approaches.
Shadid emphasized his experience, writing that the court had “discretionary fines and fees, including never charging defendants probations fees.” He also wrote that, with community court, public defenders could start meeting with their clients before the first court date and that people in the program don’t need to post cash bail.
By contrast, Rose-Akins did not focus on systemic or institutional factors relating to the court system. Instead, she said she would evaluate cases with an individualized and compassionate approach. Rose-Akins wrote that there is “no precise sentencing formula that is guaranteed to meet the goals of the criminal legal system” and that, when reviewing cases, Rose-Akins would “always start with the presumption of release.”
A similar dynamic emerged when the two candidates were questioned on addressing structural racism within the court system. In the first half of 2022, Indigenous and Black people were more than four times more likely to be charged by police and prosecuted by the City Attorney compared to their share of the city’s population.
While Shadid again emphasized his role in establishing community court as a way to address racial disproportionality in the legal system, Rose-Akins said that she would treat everyone with dignity and respect and that she would “listen first and decide last.”
With regard to endorsements, Shadid has received support from the Seattle Times, The Stranger, a number of local Democratic leaders and labor unions. Former Gov. Christine Gregoire and former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced their support of Rose-Akins.
In the other contested municipal court race — position number 3 — a reverse dynamic is in play: Incumbent Judge Adam Eisenberg is facing off against progressive challenger and public defender Pooja Vaddadi.
Serving since 2017, Eisenberg has received the support of many other local judges, Democratic leaders and the Seattle Times. Vaddadi is backed by a number of progressive organizations and The Stranger.
Anonymous allegations of sexism and gender-based misconduct shared by Vaddadi have come to overshadow the race in recent weeks. In a statement published to Twitter on Oct. 22, Vaddadi wrote that “fifteen individuals have approached the campaign with painful stories abut suffering from or witnessing sex-based discrimination and professional misconduct by Judge Eisenberg.” Via email, Vaddadi further elaborated on her statement, saying that “by reputation he was known to yell at or disregard women defense attorneys to a greater degree than he yelled at or disregarded men in the same position,” and that “I don’t believe that Judge Eisenberg has a long future on that bench no matter the outcome of this election.”
Eisenberg denied the allegations, saying that it’s impossible for him “to respond directly to vague and anonymous allegations.” He said that he takes allegations very seriously and encouraged individuals with legitimate concerns to go through the proper channels of reporting. Eisenberg wrote that, unlike his opponent, he requested ratings from the King County Bar Association and minority bar associations, which rated him “Exceptionally Well Qualified.” He also said that he was endorsed by the union representing court clerks and prosecutors, as well as by public defenders, defense attorneys and more than 100 other judges who have seen how he has interacted in the courtroom and beyond.
If re-elected, Eisenberg wrote that he would continue on his work developing the Domestic Violence Intervention Project, a community-based alternative to jail, which provides treatment to individuals involved in the court system. Vaddadi wrote that her number one priority if elected is to deliver “justice in accordance with the law and based on principles of restorative justice.” She also wrote that she would tackle “a cultural intransigence” at the court that allows judges to evade accountability from the public and their peers.
In response to questions about structural classism and racism at the court, the candidates gave thoughtful responses rooted in systemic solutions. Eisenberg wrote that he has urged the state legislature to fund treatment programs for domestic violence and that his focus was “building equitable and supportive programs” and supporting alternatives to cash bail. On racism, Eisenberg wrote that all levels of the legal system are complicit in a legacy of systemic racism and that he helped spur a rule change by the Washington State Supreme Court to allow therapeutic courts to protect the privacy rights of individuals and “prevent potential employers from penalizing people” for doing court-ordered treatment.
In her email to Real Change, Vaddadi wrote that almost all the “miscarriages of justice” at the SMC were caused by judicial error and that she would try to “rehabilitate the reputation of the court” by being compentent and impartial. She also said that she wanted the city to stop withholding resources from people who are involved in the criminal legal system and that restorative justice works better than “any kind of jail-first, punitive or retributive model.” Vaddadi said that, while having a new judge on the bench would not prevent police and prosecutors from disproportionately targeting BIPOC people, she would run her courtroom in a way that is not biased in favor of prosecutors.
In November 2021, the King County Bar Association asked attorneys who work with local courts to evaluate the performance of judges on a scale from 1 to 5. According to the anonymous survey results, attorneys rated Shadid an average ranking of 3.97 on legal decision making and 3.94 on integrity and impartiality. Eisenberg received 3.57 and 3.47 for the two categories, respectively. The average rating for all judges who were evaluated was 3.91 for legal decision making and 4.04 for integrity and impartiality.
While a couple of municipal judges will not radically reshape the criminal legal system, the Nov. 8 election gives voters an opportunity to weigh in on how Seattle approaches public safety and the disproportionate criminalization of poor, Black and Indigenous people in the city.
Photos courtesy of respective campaigns
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Nov. 2-8, 2022 issue.