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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Public defender: Motions to disqualify Judge Ochoa-Bruck due to courtroom issues are impacting defendants

Municipal Judge Gloria Ochoa-Bruck is photographed in front of Spokane County Superior Court on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Conflict between a Spokane Municipal Court judge and the city’s public defender’s office grew more contentious last week as attorneys alleged Judge Gloria Ochoa-Bruck made false statements to the public and has an inability – or perhaps an unwillingness – to follow courtroom norms that help low-level criminal defendants resolve their cases.

Ochoa-Bruck has said the complaints are overblown.

The back-and-forth is the latest development that both sides say is affecting people who have Municipal Court cases and need free legal help. Often, they are homeless, addicted to drugs or dealing with domestic violence.

The public defender’s office, led by Nicholas Antush, began filing motions to disqualify Ochoa-Bruck in October. They declined to disclose their reasoning.

After six months of these filings to shuffle her cases to another judge, she began requiring public defenders to first get the approval of their clients.

That sparked an appeal by the public defenders, which was denied by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel.

The public defender’s office then began filing new types of motions to disqualify Ochoa-Bruck, which required an explanation for why they didn’t want her hearing their cases.

Antush said in a statement that Ochoa-Bruck doesn’t manage cases properly.

“The protection of the rights of our clients, the underserved population in our community, is an important calling. It is not easy to stand up against a system that can be unwilling to listen and to learn,” Antush wrote. “Our lawyers’ sole concerns are for the rights of and fairness to our clients and so we must act to protect those.”

Antush is the brother of former Municipal Court Judge Matthew Antush, who was unseated by Ochoa-Bruck in 2021.

The public defender’s office argued that Ochoa-Bruck violated the Washington State Code on Judicial Conduct by answering questions asked by The Spokesman-Review about the issue even though there are no open cases with the commission against her.

Specifically, they argue she violated the rule that says, “A judge shall not make any public statement that would reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending or impending in any court.”

The public defender’s office also argued that Ochoa-Bruck made false statements to the newspaper last month when she said she did not know why the blanket motions to disqualify were being filed.

Antush and a representative from the city prosecutor’s office met with Ochoa-Bruck on Nov. 30 to address issues with her competency to preside over hearings. Ochoa-Bruck followed up on Dec. 4 by outlining plans to address the concerns brought up by Antush.

“I would like to apologize for coming across as defensive at the meeting held on November 30th,” Ochoa-Bruck wrote. “As I expressed, it is very unfortunate that these concerns were not brought to me earlier, so they could have been addressed prior to taking this course of action.”

She went on to address four issues that were discussed at the meeting.

Courtroom concerns

First, Ochoa-Bruck had been requiring defense attorneys to attend treatment review hearings for people with their cases assigned to therapeutic courts, where clients do not have a right to counsel.

“The court was erring on the side of caution and not addressing the Defendant without counsel present,” she wrote. “The court can see how adding Treatment Review Hearings to their workload would impact an attorney.”

Ochoa-Bruck said in the email that defense attorneys would no longer be asked to attend the reviews.

The second issue was that Ochoa-Bruck would make clerical changes to finalized orders already signed by all parties and send them to the clerk’s office – but not to the attorneys involved in the case.

Ochoa-Bruck said she was unaware that the clerk’s office wasn’t passing those corrected orders along and said she would ensure they were in the future.

There was also an issue with how Ochoa-Bruck was setting cases for a jury trial and concerns with how she handled no-contact orders, such as those involving domestic violence.

She closed out the email by encouraging attorneys to bring any other procedural issues to her attention.

“I truly do care about doing good work that makes a positive difference in the lives that come before the Court, their families, and our community,” she wrote. “Regardless of how things continue to proceed, I will continue to treat all parties with the utmost professionalism and respect and be fair and consistent with all those that come before the Court.”

Antush said in his statement that there were additional issues he is aware of that were neither discussed in the meeting nor mentioned in Ochoa-Bruck’s email. Among them: that Ochoa-Bruck did an independent investigation into a pending case and routinely failed to follow plea negotiations. He also said attorneys perceive she is biased against homeless people, that she asks clients incriminating questions and that she lacks awareness of court mechanisms to ensure a speedy trial.

On one occasion, Ochoa-Bruck accepted a plea agreement but failed to enter it or accurately generate a judgment and sentence form, which led to a warrant being issued on a closed case, he said.

“The purpose of the disqualifications was to try and create a fairer and more just environment for our clients, as is our duty and obligation,” Antush wrote. “There was a hope that with improvement in these areas, that the lawyers would feel the need for the disqualifications would go away. Unfortunately, inappropriate, harmful, and inaccurate comments which diverted the issue from the concerns expressed at our meeting, were made about my lawyers in (The Spokesman Review’s) first article which has prompted the current motion.”

A week ago, Ochoa-Bruck denied motions by the public defender’s office to disqualify her from cases because they missed deadline. She also wrote that the attorneys must show specific concerns regarding bias against a specific person involved in the case, not just general allegations of bias against an attorney.

She also noted that the public defender’s office did not try to resolve issues with her before attempting to remove her from cases in October, and that it was a full month before their initial meeting. In that meeting, Ochoa-Bruck said the issues raised were treated as “one-off” concerns that were addressed and not raised again.

“The concerns were heard, addressed, and resolved,” Ochoa-Bruck wrote in the ruling. She noted that after the Nov. 30 meeting, the volume of motions to disqualify her grew. She also acknowledged her frustration that the disqualifications are affecting defendants.

Her attorney, Carl Hueber, said in an interview that the public defender’s office has avenues to address concerns about Ochoa-Bruck’s rulings and courtroom procedure but has yet to use them. Those include additional appeals or filing a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Hueber noted that the issues raised in November were not listed as the basis for the appeal or most recent motion to disqualify her.

“Now, I’m hearing that there’s more grievances that didn’t make the list in the first three efforts and I feel comfortable enough about these new allegations to state that they’re baseless and that it appears Mr. Antush is grasping at straws to justify the disruption he and his office have caused to Municipal Court,” Hueber said.

Other attorneys and at least one judge have taken note of the ongoing conflict. A group of attorneys and community members sent a letter to Mayor Lisa Brown and City Council President Betsy Wilkerson in late April asking for an investigation into the systematic disqualification of Ochoa-Bruck and a public explanation.

“The public will be left to speculate and potentially to draw negative inferences concerning the pattern and practice of disqualification unless a formal investigation is done to determine the basis for this pattern and practice, and the results are shared with the public,” the letter reads. “If after such an investigation and fact-sharing process a rational basis for the policy comes to light, the public will benefit from that understanding.”

The letter was signed by seven women who work as attorneys or university professors and lecturers: April Anderson, Vanessa Mathisen, Julie Watts, Rebecca Bull Schaefer, Megan Griffin, Adriane Leithauser and Mariella Zavala.

City spokesperson Erin Hut said the letter has been received and is being reviewed by the city’s human resources department. Hut declined to comment further, saying the issue is a personnel matter.