Former FW judge reflects on court controversies


Former Federal Way judge Colleen Hartl made a mistake, and feels now is the time for everybody involved to move on.

Hartl’s actions this past December surprised herself, her family, Federal Way staff and residents. But until now, she has left the story behind her resignation from the Federal Way Municipal Court untold.

Happenings at work led to Hartl’s close friendship and one-night intimate encounter with public defender Sean Cecil, but they are not excuses for her actions, Hartl said.

The relationship between Hartl and Cecil was a friendship founded on their line of practice and frustrations over how the Federal Way Municipal Court was managed, she said. What started as Hartl and Cecil’s mutual reactions to the perceived lack of clear communication between presiding judge Michael Morgan and the court staff led to a friendship, followed by drinks, lunch, a late-night dinner and, in December 2007, a single intimate encounter between the judge and public defender, she said.

“It’s something I’ll never stop regretting,” Hartl said. “I feel like I need to make a public apology.”

Hartl’s problems at work began long before she and Cecil engaged in unprofessional behavior, she said.

Prior to working in Federal Way, Hartl served as judge for the cities of Des Moines and Normandy Park. With six years of experience as a judge and an honorable reputation in the two cities, it seemed she would be a good fit in the Federal Way court. Her philosophy, as a judge, to remain independent of other government branches, but also work cooperatively with city management and police, was something Hartl felt the city desired, she said.

“That’s the kind of philosophy they (city staff) were looking for (in a new judge),” Hartl said.

Hartl was offered the position of Federal Way’s second court judge in March 2007, but did not begin her work until May.

Communication between Hartl and Morgan, from the beginning, was not effective, she said. Some issues, which Hartl felt were resolved, were repeatedly resurfaced by Morgan, Hartl said. Morgan sent rapid-fire e-mails to Hartl that seemed to randomly appear and often made little sense, Hartl said.

“I would be like, ‘I can’t figure this thing out.’ You look at them and go, ‘What?’” Hartl said of Morgan’s e-mails.

Hartl, on a whim, printed the e-mail communications she began receiving from Morgan in March 2007, she said. Those e-mails now reside in an inch-thick black binder. Some of the communications sent by Morgan were addressed to city management and council and later forwarded to Hartl by the government officials.

Hartl’s attempts to request that Morgan discuss his issues with Hartl personally before shooting off e-mails to city government did not lead to any resolutions, Hartl said.

The work environment began to frustrate and bother Hartl, and when compromises could not be reached between the judges, Hartl learned to deal with whatever came her way.

“I think it consumed me more than I realized,” she said. “I internalized it.”

In a letter to The Mirror in January, Morgan said: “I believe I had a cordial relationship with Judge Hartl.”

Presiding judge:

Repeatedly, the issue of presiding judge seemed to come up, Hartl said.

Generally, in a court of two judges, they work together to manage the court and staff, she said. One has the title of presiding judge and one does not, but policy is a cooperative measure, Hartl said.

This was not the case in the Federal Way court, she said.

On July 25, 2007, Federal Way city attorney Pat Richardson wrote an e-mail to a representative with the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, asking him to analyze the experience necessary to fulfill a presiding judge position in a municipal court. City Manager Neal Beets asked Richardson to send the inquiry in order to clarify the criteria of a presiding judge.

The title details the position should only be offered to judges with at least four years of experience, unless no other judge is available to fill the position, as was the case when Morgan assumed the position.

Hartl had more experience as a judge, but because the city’s legislative and executive branches cannot dictate what the court does, Morgan and Hartl were left to work out an agreement.

Eventually, Morgan offered Hartl the title of presiding judge beginning January 2008. She accepted, telling Morgan that she preferred to work together on policy and the management of the court. His response, as seen in another e-mail to city management, was to take a hands-off approach and vow to leave her to make decisions for the court.

“Now I see the presiding judge issue to him was a much bigger issue than I realized,” Hartl said.

Public records:

This issue and others may come to light within a month’s time when a report on the court, dubbed the Stephson report, is expected be released, Richardson said. The report was conducted by an attorney hired by Federal Way to investigate the court’s management and structure.

Morgan is suing the city to block the report’s release.

A judge issued the report to become public within a week’s time of March 19. Morgan was given to the end of business March 27 to file an appeal against the release. Richardson said March 26 that she expected Morgan to file the appeal.

Hartl said she is just as curious as anyone as to what is contained in the report.

“I think that report will shed a lot of light on (the court’s work environment),” Hartl said.

But she also said she does not want to focus any more energy on the negative experiences that took place in the Federal Way Municipal Court.

Looking ahead:

Hartl is currently looking into continuing her career at a private law practice in Kent. She reported her actions with Cecil to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which will determine if she is eligible to continue practicing as a judge.

“I miss working there and fulfilling my function as a judge,” Hartl said of her time in Federal Way. “I’ve learned a lot and I’m better and stronger.”

Hartl is not sure if she would still be working in the court today if it had not been for the fact that her relationship with Cecil was revealed. She did say her resignation was the result of her no longer being able to handle the court’s managerial system.

Contact Jacinda Howard at: or (253) 925-5565.

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