Citizens for Judicial Excellence, a PAC funded by DUI defense attorneys, says that recent coverage in The Stranger unfairly casts the group in an ugly light.

As we've reported, several people have said the lawyers' well-funded campaign to oust judges raises ethical questions, one attorney filed a formal complaint with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, and yesterday several local attorneys (Tayloe Washburn, Jerry Hillis, Lynne Cohee, Jane Harvey, Steve Tan, Josh Lipsky, Rod Brown, James Tupper, Sarah Mack, Amy Kosterlitz, Stephen H. Roos, Mike Schumacher, and Gary Fallon) issued an open letter to King County attorneys calling on the group to "cease all of its anonymous activities and expenditures local judicial races.... We can’t afford to allow any special interest group to hijack our justice system — and that’s exactly what these lawyers are trying to do. "

But Steve Hayne, CJE vice president, takes umbrage with that coverage and wrote a letter to the editor:

Dear Editor:

The recent article by Dominic Holden in your publication relating to the election challenge facing Seattle Municipal Court Judge Edsonya Charles has disturbed many people who are familiar with the Court. As someone who has spent nearly every day of my 35 year legal career working in the “lower courts,” and as a founding member of Citizens for Judicial Excellence, I am troubled by the wildly inaccurate assumptions made by Mr. Holden in his writing, and I would like to correct those misstatements and provide some necessary factual context for your readers. I would respectfully ask that you publish this letter in its entirety.

As per Hayne's request, I've published the entirely of the letter here on Slog. You can read the remaining 1,700 words of it after the jump.

Mr. Holden’s story line seems to go something like this: “A tough judge is being targeted by a group of DUI lawyers who want her replaced by someone who will be easier on their clients.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The very premise of the story line is patently false. Judge Edsonya Charles is, quite simply, no “tougher” on defendants than any other judge on the bench. The interest of prosecutors, police, and defense lawyers alike in replacing her has everything to do with her suitability and competency to be a judge and nothing to do with her relative “toughness.” Since there is no factual basis to Mr. Holden’s premise, I would invite you and your readers to hear what this election is really all about:

It is a not-so-well-kept secret among prosecutors, police, and defense lawyers that the quality of judges in the lower courts varies widely. Most are highly regarded, committed, fair-minded, hard-working professionals. However, there are some (thankfully a minority) who are disturbingly incompetent, arrogant, lazy, impatient, rude, unfair, or otherwise unqualified who both sides usually agree should not be on the bench. The problem is, no matter how bad a judge may be, he or she rules with impunity, enjoying a virtual lifetime appointment. Why? Because incumbent judges rarely draw an opponent. In fact, no Seattle Municipal Court judge has faced an opponent for a dozen years. Judges aren’t challenged for one simple reason: the task of mounting a successful campaign against a sitting judge is so expensive, so time consuming, and so fraught with career-altering landmines, it overwhelms even the most determined and qualified candidates. The difficulty of raising money in a down-ballot judicial campaign discourages many, and incumbents have a significant advantage. Add the very real fear of retribution from other incumbent judges, most of whom circle their black robes around any challenged colleague, and even the most highly qualified candidates are discouraged from running.

The founders of Citizens for Judicial Excellence (CJE) were indeed primarily lawyers who practice in these lower courts every day. Many of our members appear before several different judges in a single day. I have personally appeared before well over a hundred lower court judges in my career. While our membership includes prosecutors, former prosecutors, and ordinary citizens who have an interest in a quality judiciary, the plain fact is that criminal defense lawyers simply have the most extensive and regular experience with judges at this level.

We formed the CJE in 2006 with the mission of recruiting and supporting accomplished, fair, service-oriented lawyers who would make excellent judges. Over the past four years, we have sought to identify highly accomplished lawyers who have an interest in the judiciary, and we have pulled together important resources (all readily available online)—the “notebook” referred to in Mr. Holden’s article, to make the task of running a campaign somewhat less daunting. We advertised extensively for potential candidates in publications of the State Bar Association and many local bar groups. We then used an extremely rigorous screening process to identify a very few highly qualified and committed candidates, without regard to whether they were prosecutors, defense lawyers, or civil lawyers, and with no agenda-based litmus test.

Interestingly, as it turned out, all of the candidates we ultimately endorsed in this election year came from prosecution backgrounds. All have superb credentials. No responsible observer of what we have done could seriously claim that any of these candidates were hand-picked because they will be “soft” on drunk drivers. We endorsed each of them because we concluded they will improve the quality of the bench.

The claim has been made by Judge Charles’ political supporters — and seemingly accepted as a truism by your reporter, Mr. Holden — that we support prosecutor McKenna over Judge Charles not because she is less qualified, but because she is too “tough” on our clients. There is simply no evidence whatsoever that Judge Charles is any tougher than the other judges on the Municipal Court bench. The complaints about Judge Charles have largely centered on her legal competence as well as concerns over her treatment of people who appear before her — not just lawyers — ordinary citizens as well. The concern is that she is consistently and unnecessarily confrontational, unpleasant, and unwilling to listen — to virtually everyone in her courtroom — not that she is particularly “tough” in her rulings or sentences. In fact, over the course of the past few years, the number of affidavits of prejudice (requests for a change of judge) against Judge Charles increased to such alarming proportions that other judges became concerned that she could no longer carry a full caseload. One of her fellow judges even contacted me, as well as two of my colleagues, and asked that we spend some time helping Judge Charles understand what she needed to do to improve her judicial performance. We did that. She did not improve.

If CJE were simply looking to find candidates who would be “soft,” why are all five of the candidates we endorsed either current career prosecutors (Ed McKenna and Susan Mahoney) or former prosecutors (John O’Brien, Steve Rosen, and Matt Williams)? And why did we not endorse any of the criminal defense lawyers currently running for judge?

Every single one of the candidates we endorsed has been independently rated “Exceptionally Well Qualified” by the King County Bar Association.

If the CJE had a hidden agenda (“they’re DUI lawyers; they must be up to something”) why didn’t we oppose the judge who, according to Mr. Holden’s article, considers himself to be the toughest of them all — Judge Michael Hurtado? We chose not to be involved in that race, despite Judge Hurtado’s ‘toughness’.

Ed McKenna has been endorsed not only by CJE, but by prosecutors, police guilds, the City Attorney, a majority of City Council members, and citizen groups in his challenge to Judge Charles. He is a 20-year career prosecutor who many of us have had cases against over the years. None of us would say that McKenna is “easy on drunk drivers.” In fact, he has always been a tough adversary. Ed McKenna has been rated Exceptionally Well Qualified by the King County Bar Association. Judge Charles, however, rated dead last on the Bar’s recent survey of attorneys who regularly work in the lower courts — 47th out of 47 judges rated. The KCBA poll is widely respected by the vast majority of the participants in the criminal justice system. It’s only critics seem to be those judges who fare poorly.

Judge Charles, through her surrogate and political ally James Tupper, makes the completely unfounded and irresponsible claim that it “looks like” the CJE “manipulated the bar survey by orchestrating responses.” This claim is simply preposterous. There is absolutely no evidence to support Tupper’s assertions, because he made it up from whole cloth. We didn’t, we couldn’t, and it is insulting to the Bar Association who conducted the survey, the dozens of independent lawyers who took the time to thoughtfully respond, and the WSU professor who created and tabulated the survey. Tupper seems unable or unwilling to accept the fact that his friend, Edsonya Charles, is simply a poorly performing judge who received the lowest ratings because she deserved it. Tupper, according to his firm’s website, specializes in environmental law and “water issues”. As far as can be determined, he has never practiced in the district and municipal courts, nor represented a client before Judge Charles. In contrast, our members, the prosecutors and police officers who support Ed McKenna, and the experienced lawyers who responded to the Bar survey are there every day. It makes us wonder: Why would the Stranger or anyone else be pay so much respect to Mr. Tupper’s clearly biased, unsupported, untrue accusations?

Finally, much has been made of the amount of money CJE has raised to assist judicial candidates. Your reporter, Mr. Holden, seems to imply that all of the money we have raised will be focused on the McKenna / Charles race. While I cannot comment on how CJE intends to spend its resources, I would point out that we have endorsed candidates in four contested races.

While Judge Charles’ political supporters seemingly abhor the involvement of an organization like CJE, with money contributed primarily by criminal defense lawyers, they ignore the fact that when Judge Charles herself was waging war on the City Council last spring, threatening to sue the City over cuts in the number of judges, she personally solicited money from the CJE and its member attorneys to fund her war chest. Given her campaign’s attack on the CJE now, it is ironic that she found our participation appropriate to fund her agenda then. For the record, CJE declined Judge Charles’ request. Our mission is to improve the quality of the judiciary, not to fund lawsuits against the City.

While we recognize that the money we have raised makes our participation in judicial elections interesting and novel, we do find it curious that no question has been raised about the participation of other groups in judicial elections. For many years, prosecutors, law enforcement guilds, political parties, labor unions, and other groups have endorsed judicial candidates and supported them financially. Why is it that only defense lawyers seem suspect and “up to something” in supporting judicial candidates? Isn’t it conceivable that the lawyers who appear in court every day simply want their cases heard by competent, qualified, courteous judges?

The CJE is extraordinarily proud of the job it has done over the past four years in furthering its mission to improve the lower court bench. Our efforts are unprecedented and long overdue. For the first time in decades, the citizens of Seattle and King County have been given an opportunity to choose the most qualified person for the vital task of dispensing justice in the district and municipal courts. We hope the focus of the voters, and the news media, will return to what matters most: the qualifications of the candidates themselves.

Very truly yours,

Stephen Hayne
CJE Vice President

cc: Emily Heffter, Seattle Times
Dave Ross, KIRO

You can read the first article over here, where we give repeated opportunities for CJE to deny the accusations. Regardless, consider the messenger shot.