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Federal Way court: Dysfunction junction?

By JACINDA HOWARD, The Mirror

The public tends to hold judges and court staff — who routinely determine the future of those who appear before them — to higher standards than average citizens.

But judges make mistakes and courts are not exempt to workplace dysfunction.

For two months, a Federal Way Municipal Court sex scandal has made media headlines. Most of the focus has been on Judge Colleen Hartl, who served with the city for seven months before abruptly resigning. But Hartl’s departure may be an indication of broader breakdowns and power struggles within the court.

Breaking news:

The first blow to the court’s reputation came when Hartl stepped down from her position Dec. 17. Then came news that Hartl and public defender Sean Cecil, who regularly represented clients before Hartl in the courtroom, had a flirty affair and a sexual encounter.

Next, the city was ordered Jan. 18 by King County Superior Court to release public records on the resignation, which Hartl fought to

keep sealed. E-mail communications contained in the records indicated Hartl did not have a solid working relationship with the court’s presiding judge, Michael Morgan. The e-mails portrayed Morgan in an unflattering light.

Morgan comes under fire:

On Jan. 26, the two judges were on public display in a Tacoma News Tribune article titled “Judge v. judge.” It featured quotes written by both Morgan and Hartl as well as quotes taken from public records. The article played to the idea that a power struggle for the presiding judge position could have contributed to Hartl’s resignation.

“I believe a decision to fight to keep your job will result in even more difficult times for you and your family,” Morgan wrote to Hartl in a Dec. 17 e-mail after he learned of the sex allegations.

Other e-mail communications not included in the Tacoma News Tribune article allude to a dysfunctional court: “Because of the authority of presiding judge to assign cases and because of the current allegation of sexual misconduct, I will not support you becoming presiding judge in 2008,” written by Morgan; and “I have requested that Judge Morgan never contact me again except through an attorney as his mischaracterizations and constant spying on me have severely damaged my health, especially physically,” written by Hartl after her resignation.

“The redacted records paint an incomplete picture of what happened on Dec. 14,” Morgan said.

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

On Dec. 17, a court staff member recounted to Morgan the events of a Dec. 14 holiday party at Hartl’s home, according to public records. Here, Hartl admitted to an affair with Cecil, according to the records. Morgan confirmed the story with four other staff members who attended the party, which Morgan left early, according to the records.

Court staff errors:

Not included in public records is Morgan’s Feb. 13 claim that he was told of other events and actions his staff participated in while at Hartl’s holiday party; the actions are not generally expected by adults attending a work-related function.

These led him to believe the court staff was not comfortable in Hartl’s presence and that her continued employment in the court would lead to further disturbances, Morgan said.

“There was a very strong reaction from those five people,” Morgan said. “They were clearly stressed about what had happened that night.”

A decision was made:

The city possesses a tape recording of events that may have taken place at the holiday party. The recording was not released to the press, but Morgan listened to it, he said.

This recording, as well as discussions with his staff, legal advice from the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct and the knowledge that neither Hartl nor Cecil disclosed the full details of their relationship or recused themselves from court cases prior to Dec. 17, spurred an e-mail written by Morgan to the city manager, council members and Hartl’s husband’s law office detailing the allegations against Hartl, Morgan said.

“The truth is that people that had the right to know (about the allegations) were told by me,” he said. “What she did was the problem, not my repeating it.”

The e-mail left some city council members taken aback and the mayor criticizing Morgan.

“I do not believe this individual is concerned for the (city’s) best interests,” Mayor Jack Dovey wrote in a Dec. 24 e-mail to city manager Neal Beets. “Judge Hartl may have made a bad decision, but Judge Morgan appears to be crossing the line and justifying his actions and not taking responsibility for a problem he may have created.”

Governing of judges:

The Commission on Judicial Conduct investigates complaints made against judges and makes rulings on whether a judge committed judicial ethical misconduct. The city in which a municipal court resides does not investigate such complaints.

The commission then decides what actions should be taken against that judge if misconduct is discovered, executive director Reiko Callner said. A presiding judge in a municipal court does not have the authority to hire or fire another judge, Callner said. When a judge resigns or is otherwise removed from office, the city council has the authority to appoint an interim replacement, Callner said.

However, cases being investigated by the CJC are not made public until the CJC board has evaluated the complaint and decided if the judge made an ethical mistake, Callner said.

The CJC investigates every complaint it receives, Callner said. Its rules and regulations prohibit a judge from disclosing an active investigation, but does not prohibit that judge from talking about the circumstances that may have generated a complaint, Callner said.

In Chief Prosecutor Stephanie Arthur’s account of a Dec. 17 conversation with Federal Way Judge Michael Morgan, she said Morgan told her Hartl was reported to the CJC, according to public records. Morgan also told Arthur that in the past, he reported a former Federal Way judge to the CJC as well.

No regrets:

The e-mail to the city manager and city council was an admitted attempt on Morgan’s behalf to convince the city that Hartl should not be allowed to continue practicing at the Federal Way Municipal Court.

Morgan suspected Hartl may later choose to rescind her resignation, he said.

“From my perspective, city government was reluctant to accept her resignation,” Morgan said.

Morgan said he does not regret the decisions he made relating to Hartl’s alleged misconduct. The involved parties were not telling the whole truth about their misconduct and the city may not have initially believed the allegations against Hartl, Morgan said.

The right thing for Hartl to do was resign from the Federal Way Municipal Court and not request to return to her position, Morgan said.

“I could have said nothing and done nothing and this court and this city would have suffered as a consequence,” Morgan said. “I’ve been second-guessed by a lot of people that have not talked to one of the five people at that party.”

Hartl did attempt to rescind her resignation on several occasions, according to the public records. It was denied. City manager Neal Beets responded to her via e-mail on Dec. 27: “Colleen, you resigned. We have moved on,” he wrote.

Dovey stands by his e-mail comments and said he believes a problem should be solved through communication between the parties involved. He would not comment on whether he thought Morgan could have taken a better approach to the situation.

“It’s easy to be on the bench or bleachers and say this is what I would have done,” Dovey said.

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

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