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Supreme Court orders release of Federal Way judge report: Read the complete Stephson Report here

A report on the Federal Way Municipal Court's work environment was released for public viewing June 12 by the State Supreme Court.

The decision follows a little more than a year's worth of debate and roughly $100,000 in attorney's fees. The February 2008 "Stephson report," an investigation of the court and its employees, is a 14-page document that provides a glimpse into the court's operations and management. The document is named after Amy J. Stephson, the attorney hired by the City of Federal Way to conduct the investigation.

The document concludes "that while (presiding) Judge (Michael) Morgan apparently runs his courtroom well, he has engaged in numerous inappropriate behaviors," according to the report.

The investigation was initiated after a court employee's allegations of a hostile workplace arose. The city hired Stephson to look into the claim. Morgan agreed to take part in the investigation, as did the court's 10 clerks and then-administrator, who has since resigned from her job.

"The result of Judge Morgan's behaviors is a staff that is stressed, fearful and unhappy," according to the report.

The largest problem contributing to the workplace environment is Morgan's tendency to attack, demonize and exaggerate the transgressions of those he perceives as "insubordinate, immoral or flawed in some way," according to the report.

Unpredictable work environment

Several of the clerks admitted feeling intimidated and stressed at work, according to the report. Verbal outbursts, demeaning remarks, job threats, frequent assertions of authority, demand for loyalty and inappropriate, sexist and rude comments were among the complaints the clerks and the administrator issued against Morgan.

"Judge Morgan makes it clear on a regular basis that he holds the power in the court, doing so with comments that staff find unnecessary and off-putting," according to the report.

According to the Stephson report, the comments include:

• "Did you read the memo? Cause I'm the judge."

• "I won the election; I wear the robe."

• "It's my way or no way."

• "Last time I checked, I was still the boss."

Judge's defense

Morgan claimed five employees who attended a December holiday party — at which former Judge Colleen Hartl admitted to having a sexual encounter with a public defender who practiced in the court — made false claims against him, according to the report.

"From Judge Morgan's perspective, he is trying to manage a difficult group of staff, several of whom have lied, two of whom have committed crimes, and several of whom have reported others' wrongdoing only to get back at fellow clerks... From my limited investigation, it appears that at least some of this is likely true. However, my investigation also indicates that Judge Morgan's behaviors and personalization of issues have exacerbated the problems and created new ones," according to the Stephson report.

Public victory

Before Stephson's investigation was finished, Morgan demanded it ceased. The city ordered it continued. The media requested public records and the city was prepared to release the document in accordance with the Public Disclosure Act. Morgan sued the city to keep the information private.

King County Superior Court Judge Kimberley Prochnau ruled March 19, 2008, that the report is not subject to attorney-client privilege, despite Morgan's claim otherwise, and could be released; Morgan immediately filed an appeal.

The Tacoma News Tribune joined in the lawsuit, fighting for the release of the document. In April 2008, Court of Appeals commissioner Mary Neel decided the report could be kept from the public. The city took the case to the State Supreme Court, where the Tacoma News Tribune asked that the case be expedited and a ruling be made before the Aug. 18 primary election. Morgan is running for re-election.

Costly ordeal

As of May 21, the City of Federal Way has spent $99,469 in attorney's fees, city attorney Pat Richardson said. This does not include the cost of oral arguments in front of the State Supreme Court, she said. The Stephson report cost the city $11,035 to undergo, Richardson said. The city had no comment at this time about the Supreme Court's ruling.

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