By Erica C. Barnett
Incoming Seattle Municipal Court Judge Pooja Vaddadi, who defeated incumbent Adam Eisenberg in November, was not allowed to participate in the court’s election of a new presiding judge, which took place earlier this month while Eisenberg was still on the bench.
However, Vaddadi will be allowed to attend an upcoming judicial retreat that will take place just days before she takes office.
The presiding judge sets the court’s agendas, hands out courtroom assignments, and serves as the public face of the court.
According to local court rule 10.2, the municipal court judges are supposed to elect a new presiding judge “within 30 days after [a] vacancy occurs.” Because Eisenberg will not vacate his position until next January, Vaddadi told PubliCola, “this action… was not appropriate, nor was it in line with [the local rule] for a minority of the judges to hold a secret vote to elect a presiding and assistant presiding judge.”
Six judges voted to elect Judge Faye Chess as presiding judge and Andrea Chin as the assistant presiding judge. The vote reportedly took place after it was clear that a four-judge majority—Eisenberg, Chess, Chin, and Catherine McDowall—could unilaterally push the appointments through. Votes for internal court positions are not public, and a simple majority of the judges can vote in a new presiding and assistant presiding judge without other judges present.
“I believe this action speaks to the culture of this bench. It was not appropriate, nor was it in line with [court rules] for a minority of the judges to hold a secret vote to elect a presiding and assistant presiding judge.”—Seattle Municipal Court Judge-Elect Pooja Vaddadi
Judge Damon Shadid, who was out of town during the vote, said, “Seattle voters elected Judge-Elect Vaddadi by a wide margin”—62 to 38 percent— “on a platform of reform. I was therefore disappointed that my colleagues decided to elect a new presiding and assistant presiding judge without allowing either me or Judge-Elect Vaddadi to have input. The election took place without notice while I was out of town. Judge-Elect Vaddadi was also not consulted.”
“I believe this action speaks to the culture of this bench,” Vaddadi said.
The presiding judge sets the agenda for the court and serves as its public face; they also oversee all employees in the court and can fire court employees at will. In recent years, the presiding judge has played a prominent role in shaping local policy.
When Willie Gregory was the presiding judge, for example, he focused the court on race and social justice; during his tenure, the court made it easier for people to resolve outstanding warrants and eliminated most probation-related fees. In June 2020, amid nationwide protests against police violence, Gregory wrote a heartfelt open letter about the court system’s culpability in racial injustice.
In contrast, Gregory’s predecessor, Ed McKenna, openly urged prosecutors to seek longer sentences for low-level misdemeanors and frequently prescribed long jail sentences, rather than treatment, for mentally ill defendants; since retiring early amid a scandal in which he invited media and a activist to witness his sentencing of a homeless man who had gotten significant press coverage, he became a citizen activist whose endorsement signifies a candidate will take a law-and-order approach to crime and justice.
The court’s annual retreat will take place the weekend that begins January 5; Vaddadi will be sworn in the following week. It’s unclear if Eisenberg, who did not return a call seeking comment, will attend.