Judge Judith Eiler Says Being A Tough Judge Is Her Role
by Jack Mayne
District Court races are usually quiet matters hardly noticed by voters, but because of a dust-up over courtroom behavior by a judge seeking reelection in the Burien area, and a name that draws attention, more people have heard of Judge Judith Eiler, or “Judge Judy,” invoking the name of a television series.
“If my name had been Joan or Jane, probably no one would have heard about it but the name thing has just gone everywhere,” she says with a smile.
Voters often ignore judge races because they have never heard of the candidates or the incumbents. Sometimes voters simply vote for all on the ballot. Probably not this race this year.
Judge Eiler has been a District Court judge for 18 years has been the been the chief civil judge for all three of the court’s districts. She says the King County District Court system does criminal matters “really well” but “we sort of push back on civil and we had a backlog of four to six months for doing our paperwork to attorneys and I have turned that around now in two districts to 48 hours.” She is now the chief civil judge for the third division, Seattle.
She was originally elected in Federal Way where she still lives, but that city now has its own municipal Court so she serves where the chief judge assigns her.
In 2005 the Commission on Judicial Conducts found Judge Eiler to have been “engaging in a pattern of rude, impatient and undignified treatment of self-represented litigants in the courtroom. This included inappropriately interrupting them, addressing them in an angry or condescending or demeaning tone of voice, and threatening to rule against them if they interrupted or annoyed her.”
The Commission reprimanded Judge Eiler and ordered her to participate in approved ethics and sensitivity training at her own expense.
But she ran afoul of the commission again in late 2008, but this time the commission recommended she be suspended 90 days without pay. The Supreme Court overruled that penalty.
“Judge Eiler has failed to satisfy the standard with respect to (rules regulating judges),” the Supreme Court said. “Her failure to improve her deportment after one prior admonishment merits a more severe penalty than is typical. As a result, we find that a five-day suspension – a more serious reprimand or censure – is the appropriate sanction for Judge Eiler.”
In her defense her lawyers said in court documents that she “may have made an occasional error, as happens with all judges, but she did not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct and that at all times she conducted herself properly.”
In an interview with The B-Town Blog, Judge Eiler said the “Supreme Court found that in 15 instances I was impatient and that is the only thing that they found, was that I was impatient. They said I was sharp with people and blunt and I am honest about it, I am blunt. I don’t use gobbledygook. I speak straight. I am not in the political correctness field.
“So when somebody is going 29 miles over the speed limit, and is mentally 20ish, I tell them they are driving like an idiot. The Court would prefer that I say, ‘you are driving above standard, norm for the community in which you live and you should slow down.’ I don’t think that grabs the person who is 19ish and gives them something that might stop them from doing it again.
“I tend to move things along (in court) but I have huge calendars. In my small claims calendar of which I am accused of being impatient and moving people along, sometimes we have 12 trials in the morning and 12 in the afternoon. It sounds bad to say we just don’t have time for (lengthy explanations by litigants) but that is the blunt truth, we don’t have time for that.”
She says that she changed everything the Commission on Judicial Conduct said she should change after the 2005 case, which was similar to the later situation.
“The Commission would like everybody to leave court feeling good about themselves, and that may be true if you had a lot of time, where you can do a lot of things for people, but rarely does everybody feel good about themselves when they leave and especially on traffic infractions.
“It’s a factor of being a judge that half the people before you are going to be disgruntled,” she says.
She says the District Court is a very busy place and judges have limited time to understand the matter before them, hear testimony and question people and render a decision.
“I am a user-friendly judge,” she says. “I try to make people understand what is happening in my courtroom. I try to make those kinds of lessons they can learn. If you speed, you shouldn’t leave the courtroom thinking, ‘That was easy.’ You should say, ‘I am never going to do that again.’
“Before I was an attorney and before I was a judge, I was a teacher. I think that courtroom is a teachable moment where a person can learn something. If you are speeding, then you ought to have someone in a stern voice saying you should not do that,” says Eiler.
“If you want tough, you’ve got me.”