King County Superior Court Commissioner Leonid Ponomarchuk had a decision to make. The defendant in front of him had missed previous court dates and owed back child support. The county’s prosecutor wanted the man put in jail, but the defendant’s lawyer said that would cause him to miss an important doctor’s appointment.
Faced with this conundrum between being lenient or being uncompromising, Ponomarchuk found a third option: order the man to write his next court date on his arm.
“I’m releasing him. I want you to tattoo right now the next court date, in front of me. Seriously,” Ponomarchuk said.
Ponomarchuk’s bosses didn’t appreciate his compromise. After they heard about the incident, which took place in October of last year, they suspended him for 15 days without pay.
“Requiring a defendant to write or 'tattoo' his next court date on his arm in black ink was demeaning and humiliating… requiring the defendant to write on his body, and the reference to 'tattooing' is both inherently demeaning and carried connotations for some of tattooing of victims of the Holocaust,” according to an admonished order filed on July 20 of this year.
Ponomarchuk is now running to be a Shoreline District Court Judge, where if elected he’ll preside over thousands of court cases involving harassment orders, domestic violence protection orders, and misdemeanor criminal cases. Ponomarchuk told me he regretted how his actions were interpreted but emphasized to me that he had not broken the law.
“I want to make it very clear that I take responsibility,” Ponomarchuk said. “I committed no crimes. I committed nothing of moral turpitude or anything illegal, but it was a demeanor issue and we need to emphasize good decorum and I respect that.”
Ponomarchuk was required to go through an hour of ethics training focused on appropriate courtroom demeanor before he could return to being a commissioner, which is a type of pseudo-judge appointed to rule on lower level judicial matters. Ponomarchuk has been disciplined at least three other times since 2013 by the court system, according to the admonishment against him. He admitted to me that this wasn’t the first time his conduct got him in trouble.
“I have done over 80,000 hearings motions and trails, I’ve made some mistakes,” Ponomarchuk said. “Nobody has ever conducted trials perfectly, or motions perfectly, but yeah after 80,000 I’ve had a couple of bumps.”
The court’s admonishment against Ponomarchuk and a video of the exchange was given to me by Joe Campagna, a local lawyer that is running against Ponomarchuk in this November’s election. Ponomarchuk accused Campagna of running a “hate campaign” for providing these documents to The Stranger.
“My opponent apparently likes to take playbooks out of Trump’s playbook—I’m not going to run a hate campaign,” Ponomarchuk said.
Both men have received “extremely well qualified” ratings from the King County Bar Association. Campagna also has a ridiculously long list of endorsements, which includes the entire Washington Supreme Court, almost every state legislator that represents Shoreline.
Ponomarchuk said he was shocked to hear that his action had been compared to Nazi concentration camps, where the German government tattooed interned people with tracking numbers.
“The discussion that governments tattooed people, I was horrified by that. I would never make that connection, hell I had a relative that was going to be sent to a concentration camp. I’m not that much of an idiot,” Ponomarchuk said.
He said he was ultimately trying to be compassionate with the defendant.
“It would have been fully in my rights to keep him in jail but what I really wanted him to do was to get him to take it seriously and get to the bottom line which was start supporting your kids,” Ponomarchuk said.
The state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct disagreed.
“Judicial officers often encounter frustrating individuals who lead chaotic lives. Accordingly, judges and commissioners are entrusted with great power to enforce their orders. Respondent’s actions here, however, were contrary to a judicial officer’s ethical obligation to treat people before the court with dignity, courtesy and patience,” the commission said in their admonishment.