Last week, Republican City Attorney Ann Davison asked a higher court to review Municipal Court Judge Pooja Vaddadi's decision to disqualify an assistant city attorney from prosecuting a case. Vaddadi’s ruling came a week before the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) created a policy to disqualify her from presiding over all new Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) criminal cases. The policy has led to reshuffling within SMC and has limited Vaddadi from performing her duties as an elected judge, all during a chaotic time in the court as it switches its digital case management system, causing some headaches and slow-downs. 

It All Begins with Some Shit Talk at the Salon

The story appears to begin on February 20, when Vaddadi ruled that Assistant City Attorney Victoria Pugh could no longer prosecute a case because she’d become a necessary witness for the defense. The case involved two women at the Aveda Arts & Sciences Institute. According to court documents, one of the women reported that the other woman had threatened her by saying: “Let’s go to the alley and I’ll beat your ass.” The first woman later called police to press charges against the second woman, and the CAO filed a harassment case.

One of the witnesses gave three separate and varying statements about what she’d heard the defendant say; one to the investigating officer, one to Pugh, and one to an investigator for the defense. Due to contradictions in the witness' recollection, defense attorney Mairead Reynolds argued she may need to call Pugh to the stand to ask questions about what the witness had told Pugh during a phone call. Because Pugh took a statement from the witness without recording it and without another person present to hear it, Reynolds argued that Pugh had made herself a witness and could therefore could no longer prosecute that case. 

Vaddadi agreed with Reynolds, ruling that the CAO’s office would need to find a different prosecutor to continue with the case, but she denied Reynolds’s request to wholly disqualify the CAO’s office from prosecuting it. 

The City objected to Vaddadi’s ruling, noting that Pugh’s conversation had happened in a casual phone call with the witness, not in a full interview, and prosecutors could not be expected to always have another person present for every conversation with a witness. About a month after the ruling, the CAO’s office asked the King County Superior Court to take a second look at it, saying that Vaddadi had acted “illegally” when she told the CAO’s office to reassign the case. The superior court scheduled a hearing to review the case in April.

The Last Straw? The First Straw? It's Hard to Say, because They Won't Give Us the Cases

The day after Vaddadi made her decision to disqualify the prosecutor, the CAO’s then-Criminal Division Chief Natalie Walton-Anderson sent an email to two CAO staff members saying that “we’ve had an issue with a Judge Vaddadi ruling” and adding that she needed to “usurp” the first part of a supervisors meeting. Vaddadi’s name became the first item on the next day’s criminal internal briefing agenda. Then, about a week after Vaddadi disqualified a single assistant city attorney on a single criminal case, the CAO’s office began disqualifying her on all future criminal cases in the SMC.

The CAO said the office adopted the policy of disqualifying Vaddadi due to its belief that it cannot receive “fair hearings and trials” before the judge, according to a memo sent out by Walton-Anderson. In the memo, Walton-Anderson made a litany of accusations against Vaddadi, referencing a series of different cases that raised “serious concerns about the conduct and rulings” of the judge, according to CAO spokesperson Tim Robinson.

While the CAO’s office included vague descriptions of the cases that raised “serious concerns,” it has repeatedly refused requests from The Stranger for more information about the cases referenced in the memo. By way of explanation, Robinson said, “It is not a simple matter of just going to ‘grab’ a few cases.” Most recently, he said the CAO would provide the case numbers, but he would not say when. He did, however, point out that attorneys don’t need to provide the case numbers or have any evidence to file “affidavits of prejudice" against Viddadi, which are the forms the prosecutors file to remove her from all their cases. 

In filing affidavits of prejudice in cases assigned to Vaddadi, the CAO has chosen a method of disqualifying her from future cases that requires little to no proof that she has done anything wrong or treated the office unfairly. The agency's refusal to produce any more information about those cases obstructs both Vaddadi’s ability to defend herself and the public’s ability to fairly evaluate whether a judge they elected has a bias against prosecutors. Vaddadi herself has trouble identifying the cases that Walton-Anderson specifically referenced in the memo, saying that after three weeks to think about the memo she’s “even less certain that I know what they’re talking about.” 

Before the CAO asked for a review of Vaddadi’s February ruling, the department had never requested the King County Superior Court take a second look at any of her rulings. CAO spokesperson Robinson said that the decision to disqualify Vaddadi from future criminal cases “isn’t a matter of disagreeing with past rulings” but a matter of no longer believing the office could receive a fair hearing before Vaddadi. Seattle Municipal Court Spokesperson Gary Ireland has said that the CAO never brought its concerns about Vaddadi to SMC Presiding Judge Faye R. Chess, nor to the SMC court administrator. That said, Robinson said Walton-Anderson brought her concerns directly to Vaddadi in August. Vaddadi disputes that characterization of their conversation, saying that Walton-Anderson never brought up anything to do with fairness.

SMC has since moved Vaddadi to handle infractions, such as parking and traffic violations, as the CAO’s decision to put an elected judge out of commission continues to strain SMC resources.