In his role as the newly elevated presiding judge of Seattle Municipal Court (SMC), Adam Eisenberg technically oversees the administration of the entire misdemeanor court system. In his bid to convince Seattle voters to return him to that job this November, however, he’s primarily focused on his work developing a diversion program for people accused of domestic violence. That focus stems from Eisenberg’s decades of experience in the legal system as a prosecutor, court commissioner, and magistrate working on domestic violence even before receiving an appointment to the bench in 2017.

But it’s Eisenberg’s day-to-day administration of his courtroom and perceived friendliness towards prosecutors, not his work on diversion programs, that attracted an unusually well-funded opponent in this November’s general election.

In an interview, Eisenberg dismissed those criticisms while pointing to his laundry list of endorsements from judges and attorneys on both sides of the aisle. In his view, support from prosecutors and defense attorneys alike shows he’s earned the respect of Seattle’s legal community and deserves another term to keep building on the progress he’s made in the last five years.

His Critics

Eisenberg’s critics point to a recent survey of King County Bar Association lawyers, where respondents rated him lowest among his colleagues for impartiality. He argues that the survey is flawed because it's voluntary, and so it tends to draw people with extremely favorable or unfavorable opinions of the judges. 

The survey authors anticipated this objection. To counter it, they include the percentage of responding attorneys who have appeared before a particular judge, which provides transparency on the size of the sample that generates each judge’s ratings. That data shows that 21.13% of lawyers who appeared in Eisenberg’s court responded to the survey, the highest percentage of any judge in the city’s court. So, while it’s possible that only the lawyers who were most frustrated with him were motivated enough to complete the survey, it looks like he has inspired more of that frustration than any of his colleagues on the bench.

Eisenberg’s Pet Project Shows Promise

Since donning his robes at SMC, Eisenberg has led the development of the Domestic Violence Intervention Project (DVIP). This program aims to rehabilitate people accused of misdemeanor domestic violence without throwing them in jail. 

To do that, the program connects people with a team of treatment providers, probation counselors, and victim advocates to unpack the root causes of their abusive behavior and to teach them healthy ways to resolve conflict in their intimate relationships. 

DVIP represents a less court-centric approach than more traditional diversion programs such as drug court, which typically requires someone to plead guilty and enter court-mandated treatment in exchange for avoiding jail time. In DVIP, the treatment provider leading each case’s team decides what constitutes “success” for each person in the program, and then chooses appropriate intervention strategies.

Relying on the treatment provider to drive the decision-making process allows DVIP to avoid unnecessary court involvement, Eisenberg says. He pointed out that the program's participants don’t have to check in with the court as often as people in drug court, for example, and said that the desire to gather feedback on how to improve the program drives the reason for the check-ins in the first place.

Eisenberg says he’s interested in that feedback because the four-year-old program remains in the early stages of researching its effectiveness. Right now, the court is working with a leading academic researcher with the University of Nebraska Omaha to gather data and design metrics for measuring its success. Despite the slow start in the evaluation process, which Eisenberg says was only further complicated by the pandemic, 90 of the 352 people enrolled in the DVIP program since 2018 successfully completed it, and 86 more are currently in treatment.

“Progress is the goal, not perfection”

Part of the reason for the program’s slow start traces back to a 2013 judicial conference where judges from across Washington state heard a presentation on a study showing that existing diversion programs for domestic violence were largely ineffective. Courts shut down their programs in response to the study’s findings, and the cases that supported those providers dried up.

As a result of all that, there are now far fewer domestic violence treatment providers in the state. Eisenberg says that many counties in Washington lack even one provider who offers that kind of treatment. While King County still has a few providers in the game, he told me that 20% of those options disappeared during the pandemic. 

Eisenberg hopes that continued investments in the DVIP program can reverse that trend, and he’s hopeful that it’s effective. He based the design on a newer model out of Colorado, where research showed a more personalized approach to treatment and the use of multidisciplinary teams led to better outcomes. 

There’s already some evidence suggesting that his theory of change has merit. Eisenberg told me that Spokane Municipal Court judges have asked him for help in standing up their own diversion program for people accused of misdemeanor domestic violence. As more cities follow suit, Eisenberg hopes the financial support for providers that comes with each case referral will spur more investment in domestic violence treatment programs generally.

In an ideal world, Eisenberg said, private providers would see the effectiveness of DVIP’s interventions and begin offering other methods. In the meantime, Eisenberg views his continued slow but steady advancement of this work with the same mindset he says the court uses to evaluate people in the DVIP program: “Progress is the goal, not perfection.” It’s up to Seattle voters to decide if that argument merits another four years on the bench for the program’s chief architect.

To read our profile of Eisenberg's opponent, Pooja Vaddadi, click here.