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.
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): Tell me a little bit about your background and why you want this position.
Pooja Vaddadi (PV): I started working in [Seattle Municipal Court] in August 2021. And it was that 10-month stint before I announced my candidacy that made me feel that the time had to be now. I was not planning on doing this. I was actually hoping to practice in as a public defender for a lot longer. I really, really liked it. It was my dream job to work at King County DPD. But it was painful to practice in that court. And I don’t mean because of the caseload or anything like that. I mean, I would have a genuinely innocent client, and both my client and I were forced to fight for that innocence, rather than having a city attorney understand that the client was innocent, or having a judge understand that. And just kind of having every roadblock in front of me to try to defend my client.
The really defining moment, the last straw that kind of broke the camel’s back for me, was this moment I had in the jail calendar at SMC. I had this client who had been struggling for most of his life, and he got picked up on a community court warrant, which was only $25. That was the only thing keeping him in jail. The city attorney was not objecting to his release, nor were they objecting to him participating in community court. And as you may know, you have to be out of custody to participate in community court. And the judge had just seen his record of failures to appear and decided that he needed to, quote, “have some skin in the game.”
Meanwhile, my client is begging on his knees for this judge to release him. I’ve highlighted that he had temporary respite housing, the kind of housing that you have to check in every 24 to 48 hours or risk losing your bed. He had a job interview lined up for the following week. He was getting his life back together, because this respite housing had given him the chance to focus on something other than survival. But just that 24 hours in jail rendered him homeless again.
“I think the court is really lacking my perspective, being in the trenches, interacting with Seattle’s most vulnerable populations, interacting with people that are victims of crimes that my clients have committed.”
And that was it for me. I couldn’t believe the lack of compassion that judges in this court had for the struggles that people go through in Seattle. I think they lack perspective. I think they don’t understand that failures to appear are a lot of the time unintentional and due to circumstances, whether it’s because somebody’s very mentally ill, or whether someone is living in the most desperate conditions and court is just not a priority, survival is. I think the court is really lacking my perspective, being in the trenches, interacting with Seattle’s most vulnerable populations, interacting with people that are victims of crimes that my clients have committed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had victims of domestic violence crimes actually contact me, asking me to figure out how to get the charges dropped against their partner, and just feeling the roadblocks that were there to even listening to victims of crimes. Now was the time. It was not getting better.
ECB: Why did you decide to run against Judge Eisenberg, in particular, and what are some of the issues you have with how he runs his court?
PV: The reason I initially chose Judge Eisenberg was mainly driven by the perspective at the public defender’s office and the attorneys that I had spoken with about the culture of SMC. The general consensus was that it needed to start with Judge Eisenberg. A lot of my colleagues had had experiences with him where he acted very punitively, and acted in such a way that he very much was a second prosecutor in the courtroom.
A lot of my female colleagues also expressed that they felt their treatment in front of him was very different from how he treated men in that courtroom. They felt that he had some bias against them because they were women defense attorneys. And although I have not had extensive experience appearing in front of him, I had seen him act very unprofessionally to a few of my female colleagues, to the point of raising voices and chastising them in front of their clients. That kind of behavior is unacceptable.
He’s also been in a position of leadership. And I’ve seen the court get worse and worse. I’ll admit it was only just 10 months that I was in this particular court, but people talk. People tell me that it used to be different at some point. And I felt that he was the he was a main driver behind why the court is acting the way it is. I’m here to tell you that he does not treat women well. He does not treat his employees well. And he’s a danger to the people of Seattle if he remains on that court.
I’ve seen that he has routinely administratively denied petitions to rescind or modify no-contact orders made by the protected party. I’ve read those petitions, they’re typically handwritten and not by an attorney, and they’re by the protected party who wants her partner home and is desperate to do that. And I’m honestly not even sure if they get notice that the petition has been denied.
ECB: Do you think the Domestic Violence Intervention Program that Judge Eisenberg started is working, and how would you improve or replace it?
PV: It’s not working. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s hard to get data on it. Judge Eisenberg calls it a pilot program still, even though it’s been operational for four years, and I am unclear if there’s any data. What I can tell you is that practicing in that court, I didn’t see that it worked for people that were represented by the public defender’s office. The program is only for straight cisgender men. The DVIP program has its benefits, if you’re able to actually participate in it, but it’s time-consuming. They sometimes require that you engage with therapy through DVIP, but also go out on your own and get a substance abuse evaluation and engage in that treatment. Sometimes mental health treatment will go along with that as well.
And so it becomes a very, very involved treatment regimen. You might be living in your own home or whatever. But it’s almost equivalent to being in an inpatient facility, in terms of the level of involvement that the individual needs to engage in. It’s not conducive to people who need to support families or are single parents, for example. It’s not conducive to people who are living paycheck to paycheck and struggling with housing. I think it ends up becoming really, really selective and only benefiting those who are in a [higher] economic bracket.
It’s a waste of money, because it only helps a very small percentage of people that come in and out of that court.
“Jail is not conducive at all to people getting healthier. It destabilizes people. When people get released from jail, they go back to the environment that they came from.”
ECB: Judge Eisenberg mentioned that he supported in principle the idea of providing treatment inside the jail itself rather than sending people to inpatient treatment since it’s a place people can’t abandon treatment. What do you think of this idea, and what are the pitfalls?
PV: I don’t like using jail as a tool for therapy or anything like that. Jail is not conducive at all to people getting healthier. Treatment within the community is what works. Jail is a very controlled environment, as is inpatient treatment, let’s be honest. And the thing that jail does, I think even worse than an inpatient facility, is it destabilizes people. When people get released from jail, they go back to the environment that they came from.
You can get clean and sober in jail just fine. You can do the treatment, you can do the 12 step program, you can do all of that. But it’s an institution, and the second they’re released back into the community, there’s no guarantee that they’re not going to go back to their problems that they dealt with before. They’re suddenly bombarded with all the stressors of what society has put on them previously, coupled with the stigma that comes with being previously incarcerated. They struggle to get jobs, they struggle to find proper housing, they struggle to interact with the community at all in any meaningful way, because they were separated from them. That is stressful and anxiety inducing. They’re probably going to go back to whatever substance abuse issue that they had, unless the court is willing to help them along the way. And so I don’t think SMC should be moving toward trying to push treatment within the jail.
ECB: What do you think of the court’s decision, made at the request of Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison, to exclude so-called high utilizers of the system from community court, and would you support any additional court-based efforts to divert them away from jail and out of the criminal legal system?
PV: I think it’s very wrong to exclude people on that list from therapeutic programs—it’s discriminatory. A better use for that list would be to actually put it in the hands of law enforcement and have them understand that there’s certain types of people on this list that maybe shouldn’t be booked into jail, but especially the Trueblood class people—maybe a hospital would be a better place. Or maybe we should have social workers respond to this person in crisis, rather than having the police department respond. I think having that list in the hands of people who are actually booking people into jail, might lessen the number of people that get booked into jail and cycled through the court system as well. There is a better way to use that list than just simply excluding them from therapeutic courts.
ECB: If cash bail were eliminated tomorrow, how would you ensure that people return to court, and that people who commit more serious misdemeanors, like DUI or DV assault, don’t reoffend?
PV: The problem with any pretrial release program has always been that the money needs to come from somewhere, you know, for electronic home monitoring, or for the SCRAM bracelet that monitors alcohol consumption, even for the ignition interlock the money comes from the pocket typically of the defendant. And in my experience with DUI clients, in particular, the choice becomes paying for the SCRAM [alcohol monitoring] bracelet, which costs an inordinate amount of money, or being in jail. I think if the city or the courts or whatever are able to foot the bill for a lot of these pretrial release conditions, like monitoring, I think it would go a long way toward release being more accessible for these misdemeanor offenses.