Courts and the cost of confidentiality

Taxpayers fund legal battles of Federal Way's judicial branch


The legal quandaries of the Federal Way Municipal Court get messier by the minute, and the city may be along for a long legal ride.

The journey includes a hearing that takes place today, March 19, at the Kent Regional Justice Center. It will establish whether a report on the workplace environment in the Federal Way Municipal Court should be released as public record.

Public records

Former Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Colleen Hartl’s sudden resignation from her post in mid-December began the current whirlwind of activity for the court and city.

Public records, released in January and concerning Hartl’s resignation, revealed she had an affair with one of the court’s public defenders, Sean Cecil. The records also revealed that Hartl considered the court’s workplace environment — and Presiding Judge Michael Morgan’s actions — threatening and harassing.

“I do have concern for the court staff, as they are exposed to what can best be described as work-place (sic) domestic violence,” Hartl wrote in a Jan. 2 e-mail to police chief Brian Wilson.

Following Hartl’s resignation, the city hired attorney Amy Stephson to conduct an independent investigation of the court. Stephson reviewed the workplace environment, including Morgan’s managerial role as presiding judge. The results of that investigation are now the subject of today’s court hearing.

Morgan said the report should remain sealed and said it does not portray a complete picture of what has occurred in the court.

“I told your publication over one month ago that many recent decisions I have made in the workplace were based on information not yet available to the public,” Morgan wrote in a March 13 letter to The Mirror. He writes in the e-mail that a second report, its findings yet to be revealed, was compiled by the city and that releasing Stephson’s work without also releasing the second report is unfair.

“Until certain issues are resolved, I think it is in the court’s best interest that neither of these reports be released to the public,” Morgan wrote.

Possible litigation:

In the fight to restrict the records produced by Stephson, Morgan’s attorney is expected to cite case law, specifically Soter et al. v. Cowles Publishing Company. Here, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled documents requested by The Spokesman Review newspaper were subject to attorney-client privilege and not considered public record. The documents were prepared by an independent attorney, hired by the Spokane School District, in response to the district’s anticipation of a wrongful death lawsuit against it.

Legal representation:

Hartl was the first, but not last, to recently abandon her position with the Federal Way court. Former court administrator Gina Palermo vacated her position in February. The city has not revealed if Palermo voluntarily left her job.

If a lawsuit pertaining to Morgan’s workplace behavior is filed by either woman or any other person, the city could be required to represent him. City employees, including elected judges, are privy to the city’s legal representation in matters pertaining to work they conducted within the scope of their job duties, city attorney Pat Richardson said.

But before representation is offered, the city seeks to discover whether the subject of the lawsuit was operating within his or her scope of work, Richardson said. This is generally determined in court or through an investigation, she said.

“If they are not acting within the scope of their duties, the city does not represent them,” Richardson said.

Richardson said she could not discuss whether Stephson’s report was ordered in anticipation of litigation against the city or to simply investigate the court’s inner functioning.

Future of the court:

Regardless of why the report was conducted and what it revealed, Morgan will remain in office until his term expires in 2009. The city cannot remove a person from his or her elected position, Richardson said.

Even if a judge — Morgan or any other — were practicing outside his or her scope of work, the city must continue to employ that person until his or her term expires, the public demands a recall or the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct resolves whether the judge should continue practicing, she said.

“The voters could do a recall, but the city government has no recourse,” Richardson said.

Richardson was unable to comment on whether she or anyone else representing the city has filed a complaint with the CJC against Morgan.

“The Commission of Judicial Conduct (CJC) oversees the conduct of judicial officers and in their preamble recognizes the importance of protecting the reputation of judges from false allegations as well as recognizes the public’s right to know about their elected judges,” Morgan wrote in the e-mail. “The CJC does safeguard the public’s right to know about their judges, which is why I am convinced my decision to try to keep, at this time, some information confidential is in the best interest of our court and our community.”

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