Black-and-white photo depicting the headshot of Judge Susan Mahoney against a dark-grey marbled background.

District Court Judge Who Used Racist Language Has Been Taken Off Cases, Court Says

by Ben Adlin

King County District Court Judge Susan Mahoney will not appear in court or hold supervisory positions following her use of racist slur on an online call with court employees earlier this year, the court’s presiding judge has announced.

“I want to assure court users, court staff, and the public that the Court has taken the necessary steps to resolve this matter appropriately,” Chief Presiding Judge Matthew York said in a statement released Thursday, April 21. “Judge Mahoney will not have any supervisory role with staff and will not appear in court until this matter is settled.”

The court’s announcement came just days after KNKX first reported that Mahoney was under investigation following her use of the N-word during a Feb. 9 Zoom call with court employees. The call was reportedly about derogatory terms, such as “Nazi,” that can be used to demean, harass, or intimidate others, KNKX reported, and “Mahoney said she only used the full word after she detected confusion about what exactly she meant by ‘the N-word.’”

Mahoney, who was based in Burien at the time of the incident and is up for reelection this year, served as chief presiding judge of the King County District Court from March 2020 until February of this year, when she resigned from her leadership position following accusations from colleagues that she had used the slur. In late March, her replacement, York, issued a statement expressing the court’s “commitment to ending systemic racism and bias.”

While the court is forbidden by the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct from commenting on specific allegations or even acknowledging whether a judge is under investigation, York said in his statement last week that the Washington State Judicial Code of Conduct “indicates the use of epithets or slurs is a manifestation of bias.”

“The Judiciary has zero tolerance for racism, racist words, or discrimination of any kind,” said York said in his statement. “King County District Court is responsible for providing equal access to justice for all, and our mission is to treat all persons with fairness and respect. Everyone who appears in our Court must feel that they are safe and will be treated equally. Only then can we build trust with historically marginalized communities.”

It’s not yet clear how long the issue will take to settle or what resolution might ultimately come. The Commission on Judicial Conduct could potentially censure Mahoney or even recommend to the Washington State Supreme Court that she be removed from office.

King County District Court’s public information officer, Troy Brown, said the court “does not have an estimate of how long it will take to resolve this matter.”

York’s statement noted, “Only the Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) or the voters can discipline a judge.”

Lionel Greaves IV, president of the Loren Miller Bar Association (LMBA), the Washington State chapter of the National Bar Association, the country’s oldest and largest organization of Black lawyers, told the Emerald he’s hoping the process includes “transparency, accountability, and growth from all involved.”

“Transparency means a full report of the relevant facts. Accountability means people take ownership for their actions and face appropriate consequences,” Greaves wrote in an email. “Growth means individually, and institutionally, committing to doing better and explaining how that improvement will take place.”

Mahoney was first elected to the bench in 2010 and currently serves in Burien. She declined to tell KNKX whether she plans to seek reelection this year. Emails from the Emerald to addresses associated with her reelection campaign — filed with the state in March — went unanswered. 

One challenger, Andrea Jarmon, filed paperwork in April to unseat Mahoney.

In her role as chief presiding judge for the past two years, Mahoney, who serves in Burien, did not take on cases. Instead her responsibility was to conduct court business, propose policy, supervise the budget, and handle other oversight duties.

“At present,” Brown said, “Judge Mahoney is not appearing in court, and is working in chambers handling civil motions — specifically agreed orders and default (ex parte) motions.”

Greaves, of LMBA, said it would be premature to offer an opinion about what sort of discipline would be warranted without knowing more about the facts, but he pointed out that the CJC’s own rules state that “manifestations of bias” expressly include the use of slurs.

“I am concerned by what has been reported so far, and if the CJC finds that discipline is not warranted, then we need a clear explanation of what led them to that conclusion,” Greaves said, noting the CJC’s conclusions are posted publicly once cases are closed. “LMBA and others will be watching closely and will be ready to speak up if justice is not served.”

Sadé Smith, a Seattle lawyer who focuses especially on representing People of Color and whose firm’s Dismantle project works pro bono on behalf of Black Lives Matter and other equity protesters, told the Emerald that the court’s expression of regret over a single judge’s use of the N-word overlooks the court’s fundamental role in structural racism that does “much more harm than the word.”

“The messaging about this is so bizarre to me,” Smith said. “This highlights how there’s just such a huge misunderstanding about the history of anti-Blackness in this country and the present day manifestations of it.”

“People are locked in the King County Jail — overrepresentation of Black people, people are dying — and nobody cares about that,” she continued, “and the judge says the N-word — not excusing it in any way — and people are up in arms. It’s the fakeness of it that is just kind of all a joke to me. It’s like, they want the performance of equity but they don’t want to actually take the steps of equity.”

King County’s population is about 7% Black, according to a county audit released last year, while more than 36% of people in King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention facilities are Black. An April 2021 report from the King County Auditor’s Office also found “significant racial disparities in housing and discipline that harm Black people and benefit White [sic] people, on average.” 

“Black people were more likely to be in higher security units, get infractions for breaking the rules, and spend more time in restrictive housing as punishment,” the report says. “Effects of these inequities can go beyond the jail and have lasting negative health impacts.”

Black people also stay in King County jails 40% longer than other people in custody, the report found, while white people are incarcerated for periods shorter — by 25% on average — than other people.

“Let’s address how to make this better and whole,” Smith said, “instead of centering [Mahoney’s] feelings, which is what happens with white people constantly. It’s really exhausting for Black people, you know, for us to constantly have to hear about people’s reasons why they do horrible things.”

For Sonia Joseph, whose son was killed in 2017 by Kent police, news of Mahoney’s use of the N-word stirs up traumatic memories of how she was treated by the judge in a case the following year. During an inquest into the police shooting, Joseph told the Emerald, she asked Mahoney for a deadline extension, which Mahoney told her she would grant so long as Joseph hired an attorney. Joseph said she hired two attorneys, but they ultimately had to withdraw due to lack of access to discovery and inadequate time to prepare. Left to represent herself, Joseph ultimately boycotted the rest of the inquest.

Joseph tried to speak directly to Mahoney at one point in the case to ask for the extension, but the judge denied the request and, according to a KIRO 7 report at the time, warned Joseph against interrupting. “I don’t want to have you removed. That’s the last thing I want to have happen,” Mahoney said. “So you have to follow the rules and we’ll get to you.”

Mahoney ultimately decided not to grant the extension, Joseph said, because the judge didn’t want to inconvenience the other parties in the case — specifically the officer, police department, and others whom Joseph hoped the case would hold accountable.

Joseph, who lives in Auburn, told the Emerald that she can’t know for sure whether Mahoney’s recent use of the N-word means the judge is necessarily racist or unfair, but she said it certainly felt at the time that race played a role in how the matter was handled.

“I am a Woman of Color. My son was biracial. I think, had I been a white woman, I probably would’ve been treated differently. I think I would’ve gotten more sympathy and accomodations,” Joseph said. “I was just devastated by the lack of awareness, the lack of compassion for a mother whose child was murdered.”

Mahoney was also involved in an inquest following the 2017 killing of 20-year-old Tommy Le, of Burien, who was shot by a King County Sheriff’s deputy, a case the Emerald has covered extensively. Prior to a preliminary hearing before Mahoney, Le’s family and attorney criticized the inquest process itself as one-sided, noting that the only side of the story that jurors hear comes from law enforcement.

The context of Mahoney’s February Zoom statements remain in dispute. Prior to KNKX breaking the news, The Seattle Times reported last week that Mahoney had told the paper she had not used a racial epithet or slur at all, saying that while she was aware of accusations against her, she did not know the details. Mahoney later told KNKX that she only said the full word after detecting confusion among colleagues.

“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 in a statement. “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.”

Two anonymous sources cited in the story, however, suggest Mahoney’s language may have caused more workplace tension than she realized. One said that there was no confusion on the Zoom meeting about what “the N-word” meant and claimed that Mahoney directed the comment at the only Black person in the meeting.

The other person who spoke anonymously said that they overheard Mahoney make an inappropriate comment at least one other time, when the judge allegedly referred to a Black employee as loving watermelon. That source said they later filed a complaint about the comment.

Mahoney told KNKX in a text message that she wasn’t sure where that allegation came from and couldn’t comment on a rumor.

A judge who spoke to The Seattle Times on condition of anonymity said she also submitted an online complaint about Mahoney and even sent her a letter urging her to resign.

To date, according to the CJC website, Mahoney has no disciplinary record. 

One member of the court, Judge Marcine Anderson, wrote a March 1 letter to Mahoney, obtained by both KNKX and The Times, that reportedly describes the slur as “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.”

The letter thanks Mahoney for giving up her leadership role but asks that she go further and resign altogether.

According to The Times, Anderson’s letter itself includes the N-word in full. “It sickens me to write that word, even in the context of this message,” it says, “but I find it necessary to use your exact language for clarity.”

Smith told the Emerald that she’s had cases before Mahoney in the past and doesn’t remember having any specific problems with the judge. “There are way more problematic judges on the bench in King County,” she said. “And I think it’s interesting that, again, like, people ignore the entire practices of King County judges that are anti-Black and violent and terrifying — and the impact on community, you know — but they want to focus on this.”

“They use the N-word every single day,” Smith added, “when they degrade us and dehumanize us and refuse to recognize the impact of those decisions.”

News of Mahoney’s use of racist slurs has gained traction among local and even national media, though coverage has varied. The staid ABA Journal stressed that the judge used the word “in an explanatory context” and tells only Mahoney’s side of things. 

Meanwhile, Above the Law senior editor Kathryn Rubino opined: “It seems … wild to me that anyone thinks there’s any confusion ever over the euphemism ‘N-word’ … but that’s her story.”

Whatever Mahoney says about her intentions, Smith said, “It doesn’t matter, right? We should be focusing on impact, and it harmed the people that were directly there, and it’s harmed a lot of people who’ve heard about it. If you really care about accountability, you talk about the impact and not what you meant by it.”

Update: In comments to the Emerald after this story was published, Sonia Joseph clarified that she was disappointed by the lack of accountability she feels Mahoney has faced.

Editors’ Note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Sonia Joseph as well as correct that her son was killed by Kent police in 2017, not 2016, as previously stated.

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: King County District Court Judge Susan Mahoney. Photo via King County Elections with editing by the Emerald team.

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