June 2016 Bar Bulletin
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June 2016 Bar Bulletin

Outstanding Judge Award: Judge Ronald Kessler

By Mary Jo Newhouse

 

Quick witted, funny, irreverent are not words that typically come to mind to describe a Superior Court judge. However, such plaudits recurred frequently in descriptions of Judge Ronald Kessler, this year’s recipient of KCBA’s Outstanding Judge Award.

Judge Kessler is admired and respected by his colleagues and the lawyers who appear before him for his devotion to the criminal justice system and his service to the legal profession and the judiciary. He is an engaging storyteller — and funny. The account of what earned him the Outstanding Judge Award on the cusp of retirement after spending his career in King County could be a recitation of history; in his telling it is replete with perceptive insights and self-deprecating humor.

Raised in Philadelphia, Judge Kessler received his undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He attended Villanova Law School as, in his words, a mediocre law student at a mediocre law school at the time. After he completed law school and while looking to go into legal services or public defender work, a fellow student suggested he sign up for an on-campus interview for Seattle Legal Services.

He did, even though all he knew of Seattle was vaguely related to the 1962 World’s Fair — the Space Needle and Elvis. He was interviewed by Michael Fox (later a Superior Court judge). He was not hired. However, he did follow Fox’s advice and applied to VISTA, asking to be assigned to Seattle. Judge Kessler was hired, packed up his VW Beetle and headed west, picking up hitchhikers along the way.

During his 10-month tenure at VISTA, he struck a deal with another legal services lawyer from the East Coast: If they both passed the bar exam, they would to start their own firm. Judge Kessler describes their firm, Kessler and Pedowitz, as doing ACLU and National Lawyers Guild-type work, initially providing lots of free work because they had no clients.

They developed a reputation in lesbian custody cases, the most well-known of which was Schuster v. Schuster, which was joined with Isaacson v. Isaacson for trial. The Supreme Court ultimately found in favor of their clients — two mothers, fundamentalist Christians and lesbians, who were sued by their former husbands for custody.

His law partner moved back to the east coast after three years, prompting Judge Kessler to apply to the public defender’s office (later known as The Defender Association) once he realized that he was not good at the business aspect of running a law firm. He was hired by John Henry Browne and was a public defender for 10 years. He handled the full spectrum of cases from misdemeanors to serious crimes and served both as felony supervisor and misdemeanor supervisor.

Judge Kessler candidly admits that he did not like judges when he was a practicing attorney. He had no aspirations to ascend to the bench. He thinks his sense of humor in the courtroom, unexpected but usually appreciated, and his thorough preparation helped him get along with most judges

Judge Kessler’s version of his history implies that he became a judge practically as an afterthought. In 1985 when a Seattle Municipal Court seat came open, Judge Kessler decided to seek the position because he thought he could do a better job than most sitting judges — and his salary would double. He was a Municipal Court judge for 15 years, building and refining the extensive trial and criminal defense skills he had developed as a public defender.

In 1999, former Gov. Gary Locke, who had been a prosecutor when Judge Kessler was a public defender, appointed Judge Kessler to the Superior Court. In the time he has been a Superior Court judge he has developed a reputation for his case management skills and devotion to improving the criminal justice system, as well as an able and fair judge in both criminal and civil matters.

His humor and wit do not camouflage his deep and abiding commitment to the quality of legal practice, the criminal justice system and the court system. Judges and lawyers alike express deep gratitude for his Criminal Caselaw Notebook. The Notebook is a free digest of every published criminal law opinion in Washington, summarized and updated annually by Judge Kessler. Retired Judge Jim Doerty calls it “one of the most useful tools in the state for a trial judge.”

He has served as chief criminal judge for several years. Presiding Judge
Susan Craighead describes Judge Kessler as the “brain trust of the state of Washington when it comes to criminal law.” She relies upon his “extraordinary case management skills.”

Judge Kessler agreed to finish his tenure at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent to handle the backlog of criminal cases demanding strong management skills. He currently manages all of the criminal cases before they are assigned to the trial court. He presides over a slew of hearings each day from arraignments to bond hearings to case-setting hearings, and assigns cases that he deems ready to trial judges.

Judge Laura Inveen describes him as zealous about training lawyers and mentoring. He serves as a resource and frequently provides education for judges, including lecturing on court rules and criminal law for all new Washington judges.


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