Snohomish County judge censured for profanity, reversed cases

It’s the third year in a row Judge Joseph Wilson has faced questions over his conduct on the bench.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joe Wilson.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joe Wilson.

EVERETT — A Snohomish County judge has been censured by a state judicial watchdog for behavior that was “indecorous, undignified, impatient and discourteous.”

Also in two separate cases, Superior Court Judge Joe Wilson’s words created an appearance of bias.

It’s the third year in a row that Judge Wilson has faced questions about his conduct for lobbing epithets and curse words at defendants.

In two cases of profanity cited in a Commission on Judicial Conduct order, the judge was speaking to someone struggling with addiction — a struggle the judge has dealt with himself.

“As someone who has been in their shoes, I know that soft speech and politeness will not always crack the shell of denial and deflection that addicts use to protect themselves from reality,” Wilson wrote in a statement to The Daily Herald. “At times I was overly harsh, and I realize that my bluntness did not always serve the goals I was pursuing.”

Censure is the most serious sanction the commission can impose.

The commission first admonished Wilson in 2018 for calling a defendant an “animal” in a domestic violence burglary case. At his sentencing, the man denied being abusive.

“I don’t want to hear from you anymore,” the judge responded. “Nothing you say — nothing that you say has any truth associated with it. You don’t have the integrity to talk to me.”

The censure issued this month focused on two more recent cases.

The state Court of Appeals overturned a sentence in 2019, after Wilson went on a profanity-laced tirade against a man in the drug court program. The judge used the F-word at least twice, called the man “just a criminal,” and labeled him a “liar and a thief.”

The appellate court ordered that defendant needed to be resentenced by a different judge, because Wilson had shown him “personal animosity,” according to a ruling from January 2019.

That hearing took place in the context of a so-called therapeutic court, where Wilson often took a tough love approach to defendants — which some graduates of the program found to be effective.

“I like to say he ruled with a velvet hand and an iron hammer,” one graduate said of the judge, in a Herald feature on Wilson’s court.

Wilson stepped over the line again in a third incident in April 2019, outside of drug court and in a regular criminal proceeding, just after the judge had been essentially put on notice by the higher court.

A woman, 37, came before Wilson for sentencing in six different cases. She had pleaded guilty as charged to home burglary, identity theft, possession of stolen property, forgery, unlawful production of payment instruments (i.e., she was making fake credit cards), and possession of methamphetamine. She committed the crimes between 2015 and 2018.

The woman asked for a drug offender sentencing alternative, known by the acronym DOSA, where she would serve less time in prison under an agreement to go through treatment and remain on probation while reintegrating into society. She had just participated in a drug court program in King County for about six months. She was discharged from the program to resolve her other cases.

A Department of Corrections report recommended, “with reservation,” that the woman’s request for a DOSA should be granted. She had a long criminal history, but her recent progress was promising.

In a back-and-forth between the judge and the woman, Wilson used the S-word at least seven times.

He called “BS” on her claim that she didn’t know what made her tick when it came to addiction, and accused her of trying to “blow smoke up my robe” to avoid getting the full prison sentence of seven years.

“How is that working out for you, these 37 years waking up every morning thinking that you’re a piece of (expletive) because you’re an addict?” he asked.

“Not fun,” she replied.

The judge told her, in a long impassioned exchange, that her drug abuse came down to fear, and that she didn’t need treatment: She just needed to be honest, forgive herself and believe in herself. Wilson gave her six years behind bars because there were “just too many crimes and too many cases to ignore.”

The state Court of Appeals overturned the woman’s sentence in September, ordering the defendant to be sentenced again by another judge. The appellate court cited Wilson’s past use of epithets. His intent may have been to encourage the woman, but “his harsh and inappropriate language defeated the purpose,” the Court of Appeals ruled.

Wilson has been a Superior Court judge since 2010. He ran unopposed for re-election in 2020, so he will remain a judge through 2024. His latest assignment has him working at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center, presiding over cases of children accused of crimes.

The censure did not note any fault in Wilson’s legal acumen or the rulings themselves. It criticized him for language and a lack of decorum, noting those issues alone were egregious enough to overturn cases.

The commission cited two other missteps when Wilson refused to hear attorneys’ arguments.

A transcript of a February 2018 hearing showed him telling an attorney who was trying to make a record: “You don’t have the right to make a record.”

At a sentencing in October 2019, the judge denied a prosecutor’s request to have a victim present by phone, saying in “an elevated and agitated voice while pointing directly at the prosecutor, ‘Neither you nor your office have a right to tell this Court what it’s going to do in its own courtroom,’” the order says.

Wilson did not contest the allegations leveled by the state commission.

“While the Commission’s investigation found that Respondent is generally calm and professional on the bench, at times he can be impatient or volatile,” read the commission’s order. “This may impair the right of individuals to be fairly heard by intimidating or discouraging them from fully presenting their positions in court and erodes public confidence in the fairness and integrity of the judicial system.”

Wilson agreed to undergo at least two hours of ethics training as part of his discipline, at his own expense. He also must reread the state Code of Judicial Conduct in its entirety, get coaching from “a qualified behavioral modification professional,” and promise to not repeat his bad conduct in the future.

Judge Joe Wilson released the following statement to The Daily Herald.

“I have accepted the penalty from the Commission. I love being a judge and the honor of helping save lives, serve justice, and give back to the community. However, I was sometimes overzealous in my efforts to break through to addicts. As someone who has been in their shoes, I know that soft speech and politeness will not always crack the shell of denial and deflection that addicts use to protect themselves from reality. At times I was overly harsh, and I realize that my bluntness did not always serve the goals I was pursuing.

“As a judge, I fully recognize that I must be held to a higher standard. Throughout this process with the Commission, I have had the opportunity to reexamine my approach to those in my courtroom and to make changes where changes are needed. None of us is perfect, but we can all strive to be better. I will continue to work to become an even better judge in the years ahead.”

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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