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Federal Way judge negotiated language of allegations found in reprimand

In Washington state, only the Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) has legal authority over an elected judge's conduct and discipline.

In addition, only the CJC and voters can determine whether an elected judge retains office.

Earlier this month, the CJC reprimanded Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Michael Morgan for inappropriate behavior on the job that violated the judicial code of conduct. The reprimand, which addressed allegations and terms of discipline, was made public Dec. 5. Morgan can continue to practice as a judge, but is required to seek management training, complete a course on judicial ethics and receive an evaluation by a counselor.

Morgan and/or his attorney were allowed to negotiate the language of the allegations before they were made public by the commission, said Reiko Callner, executive director of the CJC.

Callner said the process is like a plea bargain offered to a judge. If the stipulation's language is found to be acceptable by both the judge and CJC, then the stipulation is sent to commission members for an acceptance vote.

The reprimand stems from an investigation initiated and conducted by the CJC; click here to view the document or visit http://www.cjc.state.wa.us.

However, Morgan and the City of Federal Way are engaged in a separate legal battle over the release of "The Stephson Report," a non-CJC investigation into an alleged hostile work environment at the court. Morgan is suing the city to prevent public release of the report, which was prepared by an outside attorney and remains tied up in the state's court of appeals.

Callner could not comment on whether the CJC has seen The Stephson Report. Callner said that if the report is made public, and there are new allegations worthy of an investigation, then the CJC would need to conduct its own investigation. She added that The Stephson Report was ordered by the City of Federal Way and belongs to the city.

"Even if somebody handed us an investigation on a silver platter, we'd have to re-do it ourselves," Callner said.

All CJC investigations of complaints are kept confidential from both the public and judges, Callner said. About 95 percent of complaints tend to be dismissed; most complaints come from disgruntled litigants, Callner said. However, all complaints against judges are investigated by the CJC, and most judges in the state have been investigated at least once, Callner said.

The CJC also initiates investigations based on media reports, Callner said. The CJC is not obliged to wait for a complaint to be filed in order to conduct an investigation, said Callner, adding that a complaint often points the CJC in a direction when investigating.

As for a judge self-reporting a violation of the judicial code of conduct, Callner said it's a common practice that allows the CJC to either confirm a reported violation or put it to bed. Self-reporting is seen as a mitigating factor that establishes a situation of being straight-forward and open, Callner said. Self-reporting also provides immediate feedback from the CJC, she said.

The CJC cannot confirm or deny any aspects of an investigation involving a judge until it is made public. In addition, the CJC can comment only on the public information.

Background info

Former judge Colleen Hartl resigned Dec. 19, 2007, after having a brief affair with a public defender who appeared before Hartl representing clients in her courtroom.

Hartl claimed Michael Morgan, the court's presiding judge, fueled a hostile workplace environment. Morgan and the City of Federal Way agreed to look further into her claims. An outside attorney was hired to prepare a report on the court's proceedings. Before the investigation was completed, Morgan called for it to cease. The city disagreed with his actions and the investigation continued.

Morgan is suing the city to keep the records sealed. King County Superior Court Judge Kimberley Prochnau ruled March 19 that the report is not subject to attorney-client privilege and can be released; Morgan immediately filed an appeal.

To date, the city has spent $79,756 in fighting the lawsuit. Most of the fees are a result of preparing for court proceedings. The city argues the report should be released for public viewing. Morgan argues the city has no governance over the court and the investigation should have been ceased when he asked it to be. Morgan further claims city attorney Pat Richardson was representing him at the time the report was issued and attorney-client privileges classify the results as private.

Ramsey Ramerman, the Foster Pepper attorney representing the city, said in late September that he expected the Court of Appeals to reach a decision in the next six months.

Morgan has served as a judge since January 2006; his term will expire Dec. 31, 2009. Morgan has not yet declared whether he will seek re-election.

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Mirror reporter Jacinda Howard contributed to this report.

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