Judges, clerks, and attorneys in Seattle Municipal Court had a hell of a day yesterday after Republican City Attorney Ann Davison’s office removed first-term Judge Pooja Vaddadi from handling more than 150 criminal cases, causing an unexpected and challenging level of new work for the court.

On Tuesday, departing Seattle City Attorney’s Office Criminal Division Chief Natalie Walton-Anderson sent out a memo to prosecutors saying they planned to submit “affidavits of prejudice” against Vaddadi on all criminal cases moving forward. The memo made broad, overarching accusations against Vaddadi, claiming city prosecutors don’t receive “fair hearings and trials” before the judge. While Walton-Anderson’s memo accuses Vaddadi of numerous errors of law, Walton-Anderson does not list specific case numbers, making it difficult to determine the validity of the CAO’s concerns.

The CAO decided on this new policy seemingly out of the blue and without any attempt to resolve issues in a less disruptive manner. Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) Spokesperson Gary Ireland said if the CAO’s office had concerns about Vaddadi prior to taking this step, the CAO had not brought those concerns to SMC Presiding Judge Faye R. Chess or to the SMC court administrator until the office told Chess and Vaddadi about their plans to disqualify the judge. The SMC also has no record of King County Superior Court reversing any of Vaddadi’s decisions or rulings based on an appeal from the prosecutor’s office.

Washington court rules allow both prosecutors and defense attorneys to disqualify up to one judge from a case by signing an affidavit of prejudice. Both sides routinely bounce judges they perceive as unfavorable to their side, but they do so usually on a case-by-case basis. Blocking Vaddadi from handling all new criminal cases effectively allows her only to judge cases she’s already handling or those the CAO has already disqualified other judges from handling. In effect, this decision means that Davison’s office has unilaterally usurped the will of the voters who elected Vaddadi to the bench to rule in these cases.

The timing of the CAO’s decision also seems ill-planned, given that SMC began overhauling its digital filing system starting this week. The changeover means the court is already operating at a reduced capacity, and now the CAO has decided to take one of the court’s judges fully out of rotation, creating an unanticipated increase in workload, Ireland said. 

Former King County Superior Court judge and SMC judge Theresa Doyle said Friday the move creates an administrative nightmare even under normal circumstances for such a high-volume court. Doyle called it “the nuclear option,” adding that she couldn’t imagine the decision would “endear Ms. Davison to the judges at all.”

The frustration in SMC became apparent Thursday when attorneys, court staff, and defendants waited about an hour for a judge to replace Vaddadi and cover a full pretrial court calendar. When SMC Magistrate Seth Niesen finally arrived to take over for Vaddadi, he made it clear the court had not caused the delay and told the courtroom that the City’s strategy stretched the court’s already limited resources.

“I’m not saying anything about the decision to do whatever you all are doing, I’m just saying that when that happens, it’s really stressful for us,” Niesen said.

In the memo directing the new policy, Walton-Anderson claims Vaddadi failed to find probable cause for assault in a case where someone allegedly waived a fake handgun at a victim, released someone from jail after the police had arrested the person twice on DUI charges in a week, failed to grant no-contact orders in domestic violence cases “in many instances” (but the memo gave no examples of this), and had dismissed a case against someone who had not followed up with a treatment order from the court. The Stranger has requested case numbers from the CAO to verify the circumstances of these cases. The CAO said they’d try to respond to our questions sometime Friday.

The memo also said that Vaddadi “routinely raises arguments on behalf of defendants without prompting or argument from their own attorneys.” On this point, Doyle pointed out that nothing about that seems unusual in SMC. The prosecutors and public defenders practicing in SMC often have some of the least experience in the court system, and judges routinely step in if they feel an attorney has failed to follow the law. Doyle called this particularly important when dealing with inexperienced attorneys.

Vaddadi declined to comment on the memo or the CAO’s targeting of her.

Last year, prosecutors in Whatcom County made a similar move against a newly elected District Court Judge, Jonathan Rands, who’d previously worked as a DUI defense attorney. However, prosecutors only challenged Rands on his handling of DUI cases, a much more narrow targeting, which a Superior Court judge allowed. Even then, the District and Municipal Court Judges Association called the move an “attack on judicial independence and the will of the voters.”

In 2019, the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD) began a campaign to disqualify Judge Ed McKenna from hundreds of cases. However, DPD was not alone in questioning McKenna's judgement at the time, as then-City Attorney Pete Holmes had also accused McKenna of misconduct. DPD has not joined the CAO in its campaign against Vaddadi. Incidentally, McKenna endorsed Davison in her 2021 campaign for City Attorney.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the timing of when the CAO spoke with SMC and SMC judges about their concerns regarding Vaddadi.