By Erica C. Barnett
Seattle Municipal Court races tend to fly under the radar at election time, buried under higher-profile campaigns for statewide and local legislative offices. Not this year. Two seats on the court are currently up for grabs (along with five other races where incumbents are uncontested) and the people running for each seat could hardly come from more different perspectives.
In the race for judicial Position 3, public defender Pooja Vaddadi is challenging incumbent Judge Adam Eisenberg, who has served on the bench six years. Vaddadi is running against Eisenberg from the left, calling his decisions in some cases excessively punitive and vowing to take a more compassionate approach to sentencing. On Saturday, October 22, Vaddadi released the first of what she said would be several statements from women who worked at the court in some capacity accusing Eisenberg of misogyny and discriminatory treatment of women.
Eisenberg, who just became presiding judge this year, spent years hearing domestic violence cases and helped establish the Domestic Violence Intervention Project, a treatment program for domestic violence offenders. Prior to his appointment in 2017, he was a municipal court commissioner and, before that, a criminal prosecutor, making this a race between an ex-prosecutor and a current defense attorney.
PubliCola sat down (virtually) with Seattle Municipal Court candidates during September and October.
PubliCola (ECB): You piloted a program called the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, which provides counseling, treatment, and other services to people who commit domestic violence and want to change. You’ve touted this program as a success, but is it evidence-based? What can you point to, in terms of research on this or similar programs, to demonstrate that DVIP is more effective than other approaches, including jail?
Adam Eisenberg (AE): : Most one-size-fits-all DV treatment programs aren’t that effective. We believe we’re adopting the best practices in the county. When we started the program in 2018, we knew we wanted to make it a research-based project. Two researchers at the University of Nebraska Omaha came on in 2019 to help us make sure it’s effective, or determine whether it is or isn’t effective. We’re up to almost 400 people, and the people who have been in the program [so far] have a lower recidivism rate for domestic violence—like 15 percent lower than folks who didn’t complete the program. It’s very preliminary, and recidivism isn’t the only thing we’re looking at, but the bottom line is we’re actually looking at this the program through a research lens.
The difference between us and drug court is we do have regular hearings, but we stretch them out farther and give them more time. It’s not as intensive as drug court, where you show up every two weeks. The multidisciplinary team meets on a fairly regular basis and they might massage the intervention without the court necessarily pulling the person out of the program. We review at the half-year mark and another six months later, which is partly for data. And one of the things people are told when they enter DVIP is, “We want your feedback. We want to know what works and doesn’t work, so give us honest feedback,” and a lot of people actually do.
I’m trying to get another program off the ground. This is something I learned about when I was in a conference in 2019, four months before COVID hit. I met a judge in Brooklyn who was doing a juvenile court really low-level juvenile DV, like throwing a phone and smashing it. They would send them to a 12-week class to teach them how to have empathy, how to communicate. We don’t do juveniles, but we do 18 to 24 years, and I started talking to attorney general’s office about something that might even be prefiling diversion, or it could be pretrial [for that group].
The new city attorney [Ann Davison] and [criminal division head] Natalie Walton-Anderson are very interested in figuring out if we can get this off the ground. If there’s someone out in the community that might be able to put these classes on, that could be a huge game changer for very low-level DV where someone does not have an extensive history.
“Community court is meant to be a triage court—get them in and get them into services and get them on their way. There are some people who are not good candidates for it, and figuring out how to help them is an ongoing challenge.”
ECB: Speaking of Davison, her office pushed for, and won, the exclusion of so-called high utilizers of the criminal legal system from community court, a therapeutic court that’s aimed at addressing the root causes that lead people to commit low-level crimes. Did you support Davison’s efforts?
AE: This whole conversation happened before I became presiding judge. But the thing to understand is the prosecutor has discretion. They can walk away. This is a voluntarily cooperation between the parties. And so when the prosecutor said we want to ID this list of people that are not going to be eligible for community court—there are people who don’t belong in community court. It’s meant to be a triage court—get them in and get them into services and get them on their way. There are some people who are not good candidates for it, and figuring out how to help them is an ongoing challenge for the court. As a judge I recognize that she does have discretion. Whether that list is the right way to do it, I don’t know.
ECB: Many people fail to show up for their first appearance, and appearing physically in court can be a significant barrier to people who are homeless, lack phones, or are struggling with basic needs. Do you support efforts to make court more accessible, either to people facing charges or their case managers?
AE: There’s an argument if you make them come to court, you’re holding them accountable [but] if you make them come to court twice, you’re infringing on their lives. There’s this pushback about, if you make them come to court to take a class on life skills, if you make them come to court to get a phone, if you make them come to court to get hooked up with health care, you’re infringing on them. You’ve given them too many responsibilities. What happens if they fail to show up? I can tell you in the last five or six years, we have not been putting people in jail for failing to show up. We’re just not doing the model anymore that we did in the 1990s where if someone doesn’t show up, you put them in jail for 90 days.
The cases that I’m most concerned about are ones where people are getting hurt, like DV and DUI. Offering interventions for these folks is critical and interventions are alternatives to jail. Over time, we have held people in jail less and less. But there are folks where, for various reasons, there doesn’t seem to be any other remedy to keep the streets safe or keep the victims safe.[Former] Judge [Ed] McKenna said, if we’re holding people in jail for various reasons, why aren’t we giving them drug treatment while they’re in jail? There are so many people who go to treatment and walk away from treatment. I think if you’re concerned about trying to give people treatment In a way that they can’t walk away, doing it in jail might be one solution.
Judge McKenna got into a kerfuffle after the city and defense recommended that the person give [a frequent defendant] mental health treatment or drug treatment, and he gave them a year in jail. A year in jail is really 270 days, because the King County Jail gives a third off for good time. So the person got out within 270 days, and within 72 hours, he threw a coffee on the two-year-old outside of Old Navy.
So that case came in front of me. I knew the defense was going to come forward with a request to release him to inpatient treatment, and sure enough, they did. And the family was very much in favor of this person not being held in jail. They were very much on the side of treatment. The prosecutor objected, but the defendant came into court and said he’s tired of being in the court system. He’s in his 50s, he wants opportunity to do this. I agreed to release him to treatment, and he said he would go to treatment the next day. He walked away from treatment within 8 hours and got arrested on the warrant. But it might have worked, it might had changed him. So that’s the kind of decisions you have to make in this job—do I take the risk or not?[If there was treatment inside the jail], it would have a better chance of succeeding, because he would have been able to stay in treatment and get the actual treatment.
ECB: Is the city attorney’s effort to file cases within three days or less exacerbating the backlog at the court, and how is the court dealing with the existing backlog?
AE: Our biggest problem is a staffing problem. We’re down 25 percent of our clerks, so there’s days where, if clerks come in sick we have to combine calendars. Before COVID, we had four trial courts running on any given week. One thing we’re not backlogged on is jury trials. We are having a backlog of cases being filed. Our arraignment calendars can be very burdensome. We’re not able to run our full courtrooms right now; that’s added to our backlog issue.
Staffing is a huge problem. Unlike the police or sheriff’s office, we can’t offer [hiring[ incentives. We’re also facing a budget cut of 3.2 percent. Any time the court takes a budget cut, we never get that position back. We’re able to manage it through vacancy savings, so we don’t anticipate having to actually lay anybody off. As we bring this new computer system on, it might reduce the need for some clerks or bailiffs. We’ve figured out a way to [make the cuts] so we don’t have to lose people. We’re combining some positions, we’re not going to have as much training next year, things like that.