The Beginning of the End for the City Attorney

Are Tom Carr's Days Numbered?

  • comments (23)
  • Print
+ Enlarge this Image
GOING AFTER NIGHTLIFE: Under Carr, the City Attorney’s Office unleashed a citywide sting called “Operation Sobering Thought” to crack down on violence and underage drinking in bars. The crackdown was overzealous, sloppy, and resulted in zero convictions.
+ Enlarge this Image
GOING AFTER POT SMOKERS: Even after Seattle voters passed Initiative 75, making marijuana possession the lowest law-enforcement priority, Carr insisted on continuing to aggressively prosecute pot smokers.
+ Enlarge this Image
Magdalenda Donea
GOING AFTER FREE SPEECH : Seattle Center demanded that if a street performer wanted to make balloon animals in the park, he had to comply with a bunch of weird rules. The street performer sued. Carr’s office fought all the way to federal court but lost in June when a panel of judges ruled that people have the unfettered right to tie balloons in publicly owned parks.
+ Enlarge this Image
Reuben De Rijcke
GOING AFTER YOUR CAR: Carr defended impounding vehicles driven by people with a suspended license (such as drivers who have unpaid traffic tickets). The law was tossed out by the state supreme court in 2002, and a judge later ruled the city had to pay up to $1.3 million in a class-action suit settlement.

If you get busted with a small amount of pot, it's the Seattle City Attorney who decides whether to charge you (a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine) or drop the case. If you serve alcohol to a minor, the city attorney chooses whether to press charges that could land you in jail for a year or fine you $500. And when someone sues the city because his or her right to free speech has been violated, the city attorney tells city officials whether to appeal the case or concede error. The city attorney is the prosecutor in chief.

In Seattle, unlike in most cities, the city attorney is not appointed by a city official but elected by voters.

In 2001, Tom Carr won the election in a landslide. He was hailed as sweet relief compared to Mark Sidran, his anti-poor, anti-civil-liberties predecessor, who left the office to run for mayor. But Carr, despite campaign vows, has not proven himself a contrast to Sidran. Carr believes that he should continue to prosecute marijuana possession cases despite a 2003 voter-passed initiative that made marijuana possession the city's lowest law-enforcement priority. Pot prosecutions did drop—thanks to Seattle police making fewer arrests—but Carr unbelievably prosecuted a higher percentage of pot cases referred to his office.

Carr also believed that when police made 27 arrests in Operation Sobering Thought, a sting on bar employees, that he should charge each defendant with gross misdemeanors—seeking up to one-year jail terms rather than a $500 fine, which is what the Washington State Liquor Control Board does. The city attorney's office was so aggressive and sloppy about the sting that Danny Westneat wrote in the sometimes pro-nanny-state Seattle Times that this was "the nanny state gone way too far." One of Westneat's examples: police jailing "a 23-year-old bar assistant for 11 hours—allegedly for serving a drink to a drunk guy—when their own report says she 'poured him a glass of water.'" Widely regarded as a man with axes to grind who pushes a tough-on-crime agenda (even crimes citizens don't think the city should be tough on), Carr has the advantage of incumbency (he ran unopposed in 2005), name recognition, and formidable legal skills.

But a relative unknown, police watchdog Peter Holmes, who's running against Carr in November's election, is slaughtering Carr in one arena: endorsements from Democratic groups. In a two-minute speech before a crowded room of the King County Democrats on June 23, Holmes, who led the police-misconduct oversight committee for five years, blasted Carr for prosecuting low-level offenses—such as pot possession and overblown charges of obstructing police officers—while reflexively pushing unpopular cases representing the city. A few minutes later, the group handed Holmes his fourth sole endorsement in a row from local Democrats (the 11th, 37th, and 43rd District Democrats also granted sole endorsements), while Carr has received none. Several people in attendance say Carr looked dejected. Indeed, it must have been a surprise—the same group had endorsed Carr in 2001.

"We supported him big time," says Suzie Sheary, chair of the King County Democrats, regarding their Carr endorsement eight years ago. "I think Tom still has a lot of support, but Peter just has more."

It's not just that Holmes has been espousing philosophical lenience toward low-level, nonviolent crimes. He's promising to reinvent the role of city attorney. The office performs two functions: (1) prosecuting misdemeanor cases, and (2) acting as the city's lawyer, i.e., enforcing contracts and defending the city from lawsuits. Holmes argues that the city attorney works for Seattle residents and voters; if those voters don't want pot smokers to go to jail, then the city attorney should use discretion to drop charges. (Full disclosure: This is an issue that Carr and I sparred over when we were both appointed to the panel that oversaw implementation of the marijuana initiative—an initiative I organized.) And if the city is charged with a lawsuit where the city is clearly wrong, then the city attorney shouldn't waste city resources fighting it. "There is a reason why Seattle elects its city attorney when most other cities appoint the position," Holmes says. "At some point there is obstinacy, and the city attorney must be careful to consider what is in the city's best interest, rather than pursue appeals endlessly."

For instance, Holmes would not have pursued a case that the city lost in 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in late June. Balloon artist "Magic Mike" Berger sued in 2002, claiming that the city had infringed on his constitutional rights when the Seattle Center required him to purchase a permit, stand in one location in the 74-acre park, and keep "speech activities" within 30 feet of a captive crowd. Berger lost his case at first, but challenged the ruling. Carr's office fought Berger all the way into federal court—losing when a panel of judges ruled that parks are locations "where a speaker's First Amendment protections reach their zenith." Now, Carr's office is considering appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Is that what voters think the city should spend its resources on?

"I would much rather have the conversation be about the positive changes I want to make rather than criticizing Tom," Holmes says. "I think that, you know, he means well—I just think he has made numerous poor judgments over time." That's the tone coming from the Holmes camp. In an alarming contrast, Carr's campaign manager Cindi Laws is an ad-hominem-attack machine. (Laws worked on Holmes's campaign before leaving to work for Carr, a friend of hers for 19 years.) "All he knows is the upside-down end of a ledger sheet," Laws says about Holmes, a bankruptcy attorney by profession, before adding that Holmes's "only purpose in life is squeezing that last drop of blood out of a business." She argues that Holmes's years as chair of the police-misconduct oversight board was merely "grandstanding."

Meanwhile, Carr's support seems to be disappearing fast. Cleve Stockmeyer, a past candidate for the monorail board, served on Carr's steering committee in his election bid in 2001 but now supports Holmes. He points to repeated settlements in cases that the city has challenged and lost. Perhaps most egregious: Carr zealously defended the city's decision to impound vehicles driven by people with a suspended license (such as drivers who have failed to pay traffic tickets). The state supreme court tossed out the controversial law—which essentially skipped due process by seizing people's property on the spot—and a judge later ruled against Carr's office in a class-action lawsuit, ruling the city had to pay up to $1.3 million in settlement.

"I think the perception is that [Carr] is arrogant because he tends to think that this is his fiefdom and he is entitled to it," says Lem Howell, an attorney who handles civil-rights and personal-injury cases. At a campaign kickoff for Holmes in late June populated by attorneys, Howell added that, under Carr's watch, "crimes of violence are not getting the attention they deserve."

Carr's résumé is littered with other unpopular crusades. In 2007, Carr subpoenaed three Seattle Times reporters, attempting to force them to name confidential sources or face jail time (he dropped the case a few days later). The same year, he charged dozens of bar employees caught up in the aforementioned bar sting (attorneys for the defendants say that in some cases, undercover police would order drinks and hand them to underage patrons). "Carr did not investigate the circumstances around the arrests and ask himself, 'Do we have strong cases?'" says Dave Osgood, who represented three of the defendants. None of the 27 cases resulted in a successful prosecution, and, in the case of employees at Ibiza, the judge declared a mistrial after Carr's office failed to inform the employee that his testimony could be used against him. "This was nothing but political grandstanding on his part," Osgood says.

Carr believes that "the role of the city attorney is to work with the policy makers" even when those officials may be wrong, he says. But he insists he's gone "easier on low-level offenses than any other Seattle City Attorney." However, attorneys, district Democrats, and Carr's former allies think his priorities are still misplaced—and that Holmes will enact the change people thought they were getting when they voted for Carr eight years ago. recommended


Comments (23) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Carr's comment in response to the King County Dems endorsement was reported by Johnathon Fitzpatrick on Twitter. Carr said: ""It's just infuriating, but that's life. We'll deal with it."

Holems also got endorsed by the Metro Dems - vote was Carr 9, Holmes 33, with zero votes for No Endorsement.

Of the partisan races, that means Holmes had the most resounding support of ANY of the candidates from Metro Dems - almost 80%.

The 34th District (Carr and Nickels home district) is issuing endorsements on July the 8th at Fauntleroy Hall. Carr is a long-time, active member and Nickels paid his dues recently and there's a lot of interest in the endorsements from that District. Are you going to be there, Dominic?

Posted by bikechick on July 1, 2009 at 2:24 PM · Report this
Greg paid his dues recently? WTF? Greg has paid his dues to the 34th every year.
Posted by ivan on July 1, 2009 at 4:17 PM · Report this
Odd that the 34th District newsletter has narry a word on the hissy fit Carr pitched at the June forum when Holmes held his feet to the fire on these issues.
Posted by Diogenese on July 1, 2009 at 4:24 PM · Report this
Well, it is on the 34th website, so it's easy to check. Greg Nickels shows in 04 as a member up to May 05. Don't see anything in 07 or 08. Looks like his name appears on the website as a benefactor ($100) in June 09. That would put him paying dues in May, right around the time that he plead his case at the board meeting on May 24, right?
Posted by bikechick on July 1, 2009 at 5:51 PM · Report this
diogenese - missing from the newsletter? Weird, it doesn't say anyting about Carr getting all bothered and calling his opponent a liar. I was pretty impressed with Mr. Holmes because of his calm demeanor and factual statements. He just kept saying "look at the record". Very lawyerly. What do the minutes say? Are they wrong or something?

Posted by bikechick on July 1, 2009 at 5:53 PM · Report this
bikerchick @1, I wouldn't exactly call Carr and "active member". He may pay his dues, but only rarely attends meetings of the 34th District Democrats. Other electeds who live in the 34th seem to find the time to show up and participate such as Dow Constantine and Tom Rasmussen.
Posted by miranda on July 2, 2009 at 12:21 AM · Report this
Miranda, we'll i have seen carr there. At least he goes to meetings! You are right, though, active is a little strong and implies participation. Nickels on the other hand, hasn't even been there (years?) except for the candidate forum.
Posted by bikechick on July 2, 2009 at 11:34 AM · Report this
Thank you for writing this story, which really needed to be written. Carr likes to talk about his successes with programs for alternatives to detention, but it seems like nobody ever challenges him on his strict approach to cases that many citizens would consider less of a priority. When he insists on jail time for questionable, nuissance cases, he guarantees drawn out processes, and certainly doesn't do anything to help the issue of jail capacity.

I'm not 100% sold on Holmes, but I think that Cindi Laws really misses the mark on her critique of him. It sounds like she's trying to make him sound evil, just because he was a bankruptcy lawyer, which is silly. Perhaps a more persuasive question would be to ask whether he is knowledgeable enough about the issues and types of law the City Attorney deals with. Of course, I don't think that Carr really had a lot of relevant experience prior to taking office, either.
Posted by Gidge on July 2, 2009 at 12:11 PM · Report this
yea, the experience thing is stupid. Carr didnt do anything before being a city attorney that was so special either. Peter spent 8 years dealing with transparency issues and has won numerous awards praising him for his legal prowess. Even if its mostly in Bankruptcy... ask yourself what Tom Carr did before being a city attorney. He was a commercial lawyer. How is this any different? He was briefly a US attorney prosecuting organized crime... so he had experience in what... 5% of the cases he deals with as city attorney? You learn on the job, and seattle needs someone with more progressive ideas than Tom.
Posted by Jason Williams on July 2, 2009 at 1:37 PM · Report this
I supported Tom Carr, but Carr has been in the papers arguing the case for traffic cams that will "stop red-light runners and speeders and thereby calm intersections." Yeah, well, I got a cam-ticket at 23rd and E. John for a free right turn, as did my next-door neighbor. Now I've lived in the CD for 40 years and I have a lot of driving experience at 23rd and E John St., and I refuse to pay a $124 ticket for a good driving judgement that a camera cop turns into a bean-counting (seconds) exercise. So screw Tom Carr and his money-grabbing ticket-cams.
Posted by luckylu on July 3, 2009 at 6:50 PM · Report this
One problem that City Attorney Candidate Peter Holmes faces is that he may not meet the requirements under the City Charter for the position of City Attorney. Section XIII of the Charter requires the City Atttorney to have practiced law for the four years prior to his or her election. Holmes was reportedly inactive for a period of time during the past four years. While a lawyer is on inactive status, the lawyer cannot practice law.

Posted by charterreader on July 4, 2009 at 8:01 AM · Report this
"Widely regarded as a man with axes to grind who pushes a tough-on-crime agenda"

... HA! only if he isn't operating on an conflicting agenda- first and utmost taking a risk adverse course of action on behalf of the city even when contrary to the law. City first, laws second.

Carr needs to go.

Go Holmes! and give us accountability and transparency and consistent application of adherence to laws.
Posted by carrhasgottago on July 4, 2009 at 8:20 AM · Report this

Not an issue and a strawman. Gotta get some new talking points!
Posted by bikechick on July 4, 2009 at 10:07 AM · Report this

Why isn't it an issue? How can someone who could not legally practice law during the last four years qualify under the City Charter? Please explain?
Posted by charterreader on July 4, 2009 at 12:19 PM · Report this
Pete has been fully authorized and licensed to practice law since his Washington State admission in 1986. It's not an issue because you are factually incorrect. Thanks.
Posted by bikechick on July 4, 2009 at 3:24 PM · Report this
Ivan, did you find that documentation that support your assertion that Greg is a long-time 34th member? Be interested to see it.
Posted by bikechick on July 4, 2009 at 11:13 PM · Report this
Sorry, bikechick, but you're factually incorrect. Peter Holmes was on inactive status during the last four years and could not practice law during that time. You can look it up.
Posted by charterreader on July 5, 2009 at 12:17 AM · Report this

I did look it up. However, since you are the one making the assertion, please do offer your evidence.

As a matter of fact, I challenge you to file the appropriate documentation and raise a legal challenge. That would be the appropriate thing thing to do.

Barring facts, evidence or a legal challenge: this is just nasty politics.

Here's the Charter:…

It says: The City Attorney shall be an attorney of the Supreme Court of the State, and have been in the practice of his or her profession in The City of Seattle for at least four years next prior to his or her election.

Holmes is a practicing attorney in the state of washington and in the city of seattle. He has not now, nor has he ever been, on inactive status in Washington. License up to date, dues paid, credits fulfilled.

Here's the Holmes bar page:…

It is you that is making this specious claim. Since this has been investigated and proven false already, I really question why you keep bringing it up. There's a great phrase in legal circles: When the law is on your side - pound the law. When the evidence is on your side - pound the evidence. When neither is on your side - pound the table. This isn't even pounding the table - it's specious, unfactual and malicous character assassination brokered under the cover of anonymous emails and blog postings and whispers in back alleys. Not admirable for the campaign of a member of the legal profession. Swiftboating is a GOP technique!

Not a lawyer here, but I'm pretty sure that this last line of yours is well into defamation and libel: "Peter Holmes was on inactive status during the last four years and could not practice law during that time."

You will also note that Pete Holmes was employed BY THE CITY and recieved compensation in the same manner as did Tom Carr. Irony alert! He also did other legal work during that time, as a practicing attorney.

What is interesting to note is that Pete has been in Private Practice more recently than has Carr and neither is in private practice now. To require such, would be unconstitutional, of course.
Posted by bikechick on July 5, 2009 at 1:08 PM · Report this

Ok. I'll take you at your word and retract my earlier statement. Based on what you say, it appears that "Holmes is a practicing attorney in the state of washington and in the city of seattle. He has not now, nor has he ever been, on inactive status in Washington. License up to date, dues paid, credits fulfilled."

Posted by charterreader on July 5, 2009 at 3:24 PM · Report this
Wow That city is Fucked up. people are fleeing in mass droves. over 1/2 the people I know are heading to Portland in an attempt to live there life in peace. Washington is now the reddest of red states. they do not even try that kinda crap in Texas or Oklahoma. IMO they should change the name to bustington
Posted by whateveryousayitis on July 6, 2009 at 11:49 AM · Report this

Thanks for your disclosure regarding your involvement in the marijuana decriminalization initiative (which really does nothing as federal law controls on the matter). Please also disclose whether you've made or solicited any contributions for Holmes.
Posted by Yo. on July 13, 2009 at 11:48 PM · Report this
NaFun 22
@21 Incorrect, I-75 tells the city not to pursue marijuana cases where the amounts were clearly for personal use. It's kept about 60 people from seeing a courtroom each year since it passed in 2003.

Posted by NaFun on July 14, 2009 at 12:23 PM · Report this
Washington is now the reddest of red states.That city is Fucked up.
Posted by diecasting on July 21, 2009 at 7:59 PM · Report this

Add a comment