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Judge's affair stirs up court

Former Federal Way Municipal Court judge Colleen Hartl celebrates her induction May 1, 2007, with former mayor Mike Park, Judge Michael Morgan and Judge Charles Delaurenti. - Courtesy photo
Former Federal Way Municipal Court judge Colleen Hartl celebrates her induction May 1, 2007, with former mayor Mike Park, Judge Michael Morgan and Judge Charles Delaurenti.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

By JACINDA HOWARD, The Mirror

Recently surfaced details surrounding the resignation of former Federal Way Judge Colleen Hartl have led to the temporary banning of a public defender from the Federal Way Municipal Court.

On Jan. 9, Judge Michael Morgan restricted attorney Sean Cecil from working in the court after allegations of his intimate involvement with Hartl surfaced; Cecil chose against voluntarily excusing himself from court procedures. Morgan placed a complaint against Cecil with the Washington State Bar Association, according to a Jan. 10 Associated Press article titled “Federal Way judge quits; talked of affair with lawyer.”

Hartl allegedly admitted at a Dec. 14 Christmas party to having an affair with Cecil, who began practicing law in 2006 and often represented defendants appearing before Hartl in the Federal Way Municipal Court. Hartl spoke of a text message, sexual in nature, that Cecil had sent her, according to the Associated Press.

Judiciary staff who heard the comments reported them to Morgan on Dec. 17, and Hartl chose to voluntarily step down from her position two days later on Dec. 19. Neither Hartl nor Cecil have confirmed or denied their relationship, Morgan said. But while Hartl resigned, Cecil continued to operate within the court. His presence caused discomfort to employees, who reported the ethical issue despite the possibility of being fired by Hartl, Morgan said.

“This is a small court, and my first perspective on this is it was very awkward for Mr. Cecil to practice here,” Morgan said. “This is not a productive working environment with him present.”

Furthermore, Cecil’s continued presence in the court held the ability to disrupt future court procedures if defendants felt they were inadequately represented by Cecil, Morgan said. Cecil’s credibility has been damaged, Morgan said. The attorney was offered the opportunity to practice in another court until the facts of the situation came to light, Morgan said. However, he chose not do pursue this option.

“If you do nothing and continue to let him represent people and the allegations that I consider very serious are shown, in large part, to be true, what does that do to the cases that he handled after the situation?” Morgan said.

Cecil’s removal from the Federal Way court does not mean he is unable to continue practicing law. If a complaint against an attorney is made, the Washington State Bar Association is responsible for investigating that complaint, said Judy Berrett, WSBA director of member and community relations. Attorneys are held to the Rules of Professional Conduct, she said.

“That is the yardstick in which a lawyer’s behaviors are measured,” she said. “All the lawyers know that those are the rules that they must follow.”

If the WSBA finds an attorney has violated those rules, it can suggest disbarment, but ultimately the Washington State Supreme Court would have to issue this, she said. Berrett was unable to confirm whether a complaint had been filed against Cecil.

“In the early stages (of an investigation), nothing is public and we cannot say whether we have received a complaint about a lawyer,” Berrett said.

Hartl’s resignation does not mean she cannot continue to practice law. Morgan respects Hartl, who served as a Federal Way judge for seven months, for stepping down rather than continuing to serve in her position, he said.

The Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct documents complaints against judges, and removing a judge’s title would rest in the hands of this organization. The process could take between four and six months, Morgan said. As of Thursday, Hartl had no complaints on file with the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

“I cannot confirm or deny any investigation into her alleged misconduct,” Morgan said.

Morgan suspects additional details of the alleged relationship between Cecil and Hartl will continue to surface in the future.

“What the allegations are may not be what all the facts are,” he said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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Replacement

Until Cecil can clear his name or the Washington State Bar Association acts on the allegations against him, the attorney will remain absent from the Federal Way court. In the meantime, Federal Way will begin looking for a judge to replace Hartl beginning this month, city manager Neal Beets said. Whomever is hired will serve through 2008, and the position will be open for election in 2009, city attorney Pat Richardson said.

Until another judge is hired, Judge Michael Morgan has found temporary judges to fill in for Hartl. These judges pro-tem are scheduled until the end of March, he said. Morgan will also take on a portion of the cases previously assigned to Hartl.

“I’d rather take on the extra responsibility to give the city the time to pick the best judge for our city than for them to feel rushed,” Morgan said.

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