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Law

King County judge under investigation for alleged use of racial slur

Seattle_-_City_Hall_Park_&_King_County_Courthouse_04.jpg
Joe Mabel
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CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The King County District Court in Seattle, where Judge Susan Mahoney served as chief presiding judge from March 2020 to February 2022.
Updated: May 23, 2022 at 3:22 PM PDT
King County Judge Susan Mahoney, who had been elected to the district court three times, did not file for re-election by the Friday, May 20 deadline. The Commission on Judicial Conduct for Washington State is currently investigating Mahoney and may discipline her before her term is up at the end of the year. Andrea Jarmon, a Black judge who has filled in at King County Superior Court, is now running unchallenged for Mahoney’s seat.
Updated: April 16, 2022 at 12:02 PM PDT
Editor's Note: This article contains a euphemism for a racial slur. KNKX believes this euphemism is crucial to the story and limits its use.

A King County judge is under investigation for allegedly using a racial slur, KNKX has learned — a development that has rippled through legal circles for weeks and raised questions about electoral plans.

Judge Susan Mahoney resigned from her position as chief presiding judge at King County District Court in late February after colleagues accused her of saying the N-word during a recent meeting with employees. She is currently a judge in Burien in the King County District Court’s south division.

Troy Brown, communication manager for King County District Court, said Judge Matthew York has replaced Mahoney as chief presiding judge. Mahoney served as chief presiding judge, a position that is responsible for the supervision of business and administrative duties at the court, for the last two years.

What’s more, Mahoney, who has been elected three times, is up for reelection this year. A former assistant city attorney for Des Moines, Washington, Mahoney, 58, would not say whether she plans to run again, but in a sign that she intends to begin raising funds for a campaign, she recently registered with the Public Disclosure Commission.

If Mahoney does decide to seek reelection, she already has at least one opponent. Andrea Jarmon, a Black judge who has worked in King County Superior Court and practiced criminal and family law, said she intends to run for Mahoney's seat.

Some colleagues, however, are calling for Mahoney’s immediate resignation as a King County District Court judge. Several judges have sent complaints to the Commission on Judicial Conduct for Washington state, an investigatory body tasked with disciplining judges.

News about Mahoney’s use of the racial slur has spread slowly, and her career now hangs in the balance.

Reaction from colleagues

In an email obtained by KNKX dated April 1, York wrote to staff to tell them he knows “many of you have heard that there is an allegation that a KCDC judge used racist language during a meeting.”

York does not name the judge but writes that “the judge in question will not have any supervisory role with staff and will not appear in court until this matter is settled.” York explains that only the commission can discipline a judge but assures staff that they are taking the allegation seriously and are addressing the issue.

In a letter sent to the commission last month and obtained by KNKX, King County District Court Judge Marcine Anderson wrote that she was outraged by Mahoney’s use of the N-word.

“It sickens me to write that word, even in the context of this message, but I find it necessary to use your exact language for clarity–appalling language that fell from your lips with such ease and comfort that it might not have been the first time you spoke that word socially,” Anderson writes in the letter, dated March 1, 2022, which was also sent to Mahoney.

In the letter, Anderson argues that because of the use of the word, “it is hard to imagine a situation where an African American litigant, attorney or witness might appear before you and be able to see you as an unbiased, impartial, or fair judge.” King County District Court handles misdemeanor criminal cases, domestic violence protection orders, small claims and other matters.

Anderson also thanks Mahoney for stepping down as chief presiding judge of King County District Court, but asks that she resign altogether.

Accounts of the meeting

The Feb. 9th Zoom meeting that precipitated her resignation as chief presiding judge concerned the use of derogatory terms, such as “Nazi,” among employees in the workplace “where the intent had been to bully, demean, harass, and intimidate others,” Mahoney said in a statement.

A black and white headshot of Susan Mahoney
King County Voters' Pamphlet
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King County Elections
Susan Mahoney.

“It was my position that hate speech can never be tolerated and that the use of such words as slurs or derogatory terms are not protected free speech,” Mahoney continued. “To illustrate my point, I repeated an example of harmful hate speech previously given to me by one of the meeting participants, and said ‘like the N-word.'”

Mahoney said she only used the full word after she detected confusion about what exactly she meant by “the N-word.”

“At the time, I had not internalized that the word could still have hurtful impact when used not as an epithet but in an explanatory context,” Mahoney said. “I have never used that word in casual conversation and the word does not fall easily and comfortably from my lips. Statements and speculations to the contrary are lies.”

In her statement, Mahoney vows never to say the word again in any context.

A source, who wished to remain anonymous so that the commission could finish its work, disputes Mahoney’s account. The source said there was no confusion during the meeting but that Mahoney directed the N-word at the only Black person in the meeting – Regina Alexander, the court’s director of probation – comparing its use with the use of the word “Nazi.”

Through her attorney, Vonda Sargent, Alexander declined to comment.

Enforcing the Code of Judicial Conduct

A separate source who spoke to KNKX on the condition of anonymity, in part because they believe voters should decide whether a judge stays in power, said they overheard Mahoney make an inappropriate comment at least one other time, when she referred to a Black employee as loving watermelon. The source said they were shocked by the behavior and have since sent a complaint about the incident to the commission.

When asked about the incident, Mahoney responded in a text message that she isn't sure where that allegation comes from and that she could not respond to a rumor.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct can impose various levels of discipline. After censure, the highest level of discipline, which signifies the judge’s behavior has undermined public confidence, the commission can recommend to the state Supreme Court that a judge be suspended or removed from office.

Reiko Callner, the executive director of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, said because of confidentiality rules she could neither affirm nor deny the existence of a complaint. Callner explained that there are 11 appointed members of the commission who meet a handful of times a year to vote on disciplinary decisions regarding judges. The next meeting is scheduled for April 22 but investigation times vary widely, and judges are given an opportunity to respond and appeal cases.

The vast majority of complaints are dismissed because they are submitted by litigants who are unhappy with rulings, Callner said. Last year, the commission received more than 500 complaints.

When asked what consequences there might be for a judge who used a racial slur, Callner said the punishment would depend on the specific circumstances but added that the commission has tended to treat cases involving discrimination, or sexual misconduct, more severely in recent times, following societal norms.

The culture at King County District Court

A judge who works with Mahoney but asked to remain anonymous out of respect for colleagues who are waiting for the investigation to be completed, said it was important to speak about the matter because “if people don’t know about it nothing is going to change.”

“Doing nothing perpetuates systemic racism,” the judge said.

The judge said concerns have been raised about Mahoney’s management style and that they’ve overheard Mahoney disparage colleagues. They also said Mahoney lacked candor when explaining why she was stepping down as presiding judge.

No one is clamoring to her defense, the judge said.

”No one is ‘oh my god, what’s going on with Susan,’” they said. “She doesn’t have a great reputation.”

An assessment of the culture at King County District Court shared with KNKX, which was conducted last year by Creative Ground, an organization that helps address conflict and dysfunction in the workplace, referred to the chief presiding judge’s “punitive style” making some staff feel unsafe. The assessment also stated that a lack of agreement among judges at different locations and the chief presiding judge had sown confusion.

In an interview with KNKX, Mahoney pointed out the report had also characterized other judges’ management style in unflattering terms, such as dismissive and belittling towards clerks — creating an abusive environment.

“It was a difficult, extraordinary time,” Mahoney said, referring to the pandemic. “Not one single piece of this court operated like it had before.”

Mahoney said she had to balance courthouse safety with public access to justice.

“It was a rough, rough go, and I stepped up,” she said, noting that she sometimes speaks loudly, which may be perceived as harsh, because she is partially deaf. “Those were the feelings at the time. I can’t disregard them.”

“I think we all have PTSD,” Mahoney continued. “This was just a product of those frustrations.”

But Teri Rogers Kemp, a Black attorney who practices criminal law and advocates for police accountability, said whether Mahoney should continue as a judge comes down to the use of that one word – the N-word.

“That word immediately triggers trauma, and it triggers anger. It is provocative. It is insulting. It reminds a Black person of the circumstances of being an enslaved person, of being a person who has very limited rights under the laws of Jim Crow, under laws that exist today, where you see so many Black people shot and killed by police officers,” Rogers Kemp said.

My experience as a Black person is that whenever that word comes out of a white person now it automatically says hostility. I intend to be hostile towards you. And I think most white folks know that,” she said.


Updated: April 17, 2022 at 11:15 AM PDT

This story has been updated with details about the kind of cases handled by the district court, Judge Susan Mahoney's election history, the location of the meeting where a slur was allegedly used, and the workplace culture report.

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station.