Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Judge Ed McKenna: Staying True

Profile / Judge Ed McKenna: Staying True

April 2020 Bar Bulletin

By Michael J. Finkle

When I sat down to profile Judge Ed McKenna, on the eve of his retirement, he told me: “As I look back on my career, I just hope that I have left our community as a better place for all.”

The word that best describes Judge McKenna is eclectic. His mother was Native American, born on a reservation, and received only a 6th grade education. His father, was a 3rd generation attorney. It is no surprise that Judge McKenna, who was educated at the University of Washington and Seattle University but was raised in the summers on a reservation in Montana, became the 4th generation attorney and 3rd of those generations to serve as a judge.

Judge McKenna and I worked together in the Criminal Division of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (SCAO) for 19 years, until I assumed my position on the King County District Court in 2010 and Judge McKenna assumed his position on the Seattle Municipal Court in 2011. With the City, I was the supervisor and Judge McKenna was the assistant supervisor of a unit referred to at various times as the Trial Unit, the Special Operations Unit, and the Orange Team. We worked through four mayors, three City Attorneys, three Criminal Division Chiefs, and both the Mardi Gras and World Trade Organization riots.

Judge McKenna has served in several capacities beyond just a traditional prosecutor. As a judge, he presided over newly created courtrooms in the Domestic Violence Court and Mental Health Court. He has been a fierce advocate for, and defender of, an independent judiciary. Judge McKenna expresses his judicial philosophy as “rehabilitation with accountability.” Extending the work he did as a community-based prosecutor, working to resolve long-term public safety issues.

During the time that we worked together in the SCAO, Judge McKenna and I had the pleasure of working with an immense pool of talent that prosecuted in SCAO, served as public defenders in Office of Public Defense, or presided as judges in Seattle Municipal Court before taking up judicial positions.

The most enduring vision I have in my mind’s eye of Judge McKenna is of him sitting in his office, with black hair (sorry Judge McKenna, we know it is all grey now.) He would have a pen in hand with the pen cap perched in his teeth. That is how he would make file notes for the assigned trial prosecutor, about either trial strategy or the parameters of an acceptable disposition.

Both prosecutors and public defenders share this wisdom: you spent the first six months of your career establishing your reputation, and you spent the rest of your career either living off it or living it down. Judge McKenna had two reputations. First, he had a reputation as a hardnosed negotiator. Second, he had a reputation as not tolerating fools gladly.

If Judge McKenna was deciding a case with proof issues but the defendant had a lengthy criminal history, he would push the case to trial if he could not reach an appropriate disposition. But when a Defendant had no criminal history, and the case had no issues of proof, McKenna would continue to sweeten the deal.

Judge McKenna has a sharp sense of humor, tending towards the sarcastic. And he was not above pulling the occasional practical joke during his time with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office. (I know from personal experience.) Seattle Municipal Court Magistrate Mary Lynch, who worked with Judge McKenna at the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, can’t forget the time Judge McKenna hung a giant fake spider outside of her office window. At that time, we all worked on the 14th floor of the Dexter Horton Building. Magistrate Lynch was deathly afraid of heights, so she couldn’t bear to open the window and retrieve the spider.

He also kept himself busy outside of the Courtroom, working as a craftsman. He honed his skills volunteering with an organization that repaired and rehabilitated homes to assist the elderly and disabled, doing the work necessary to help them stay in their homes. He found this work fulfilling but also grounding, letting him remain calm during the sometimes tense work of a Judge.

Speaking on Judge McKenna, Magistrate Lynch said, “I worked with Judge McKenna in both the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and in Seattle Municipal Court. In both his capacity as a prosecutor and a judicial officer, he was concerned with the integrity of the justice system. As presiding judge in the Seattle Municipal Court, he showed the desire to steer the Court in a direction that safeguarded the rights of all people who came before it without sacrificing public safety.”

I have always enjoyed “talking shop” with Judge McKenna when we can find the time. He was always passionate in his belief that his duty as a Judge was to make the correct decision, rather than the decision that favored one side or the other. Just as when he was a prosecutor, Judge McKenna always kept his cool, and approached each issue no matter the situation, whether legal or administrative. His serious, contemplative approach to things is admirable.

Judge McKenna’s service as the presiding judge of the Seattle Municipal Court is a necessary but thankless job. If he makes a decision unpopular with 98% of the public, he will be pilloried by that 98%. If a presiding judge does something popular with 98% of the public, he will still be pilloried by the other 2%. But Judge McKenna has never let that dissuade him from making the decision he knows is right.

What’s next for Judge McKenna? He told me that he is sad to think that he may be ending his career, but that he is excited to travel to places that he never had the time to see. He and his wife enjoy motorcycle rallies, and they hope to attend some later this year.

To Judge McKenna: this is my way of saying that I admire the way you have stayed true to yourself as a person, as a prosecutor, and as a judge. I have enjoyed knowing and working with you over nearly three decades (yikes!!). I wish you all the best in retirement. 

Michael J. Finkle is a King County District Court Judge.

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