Seattle Municipal Court Presiding Judge Willie Gregory Receives Innovating Justice Award From Washington Courts

Today, Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) Presiding Judge Willie Gregory was honored by Washington State Courts for exceptional leadership in helping courts deliver innovative and responsive justice using a race equity lens during the COVID-19 crisis by receiving the Innovating Justice Award. Judge Gregory was elected to the position of Presiding Judge by his SMC colleagues at the beginning of the pandemic and has led the court with guiding principles of protecting health and safety and advancing racial and social equity.

Just weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Seattle, Presiding Judge Gregory made the unprecedented decision to significantly limit court operations and shut down the courthouse on March 16, 2020. In making this decision, he prioritized the health and safety of all court participants. He has since worked tirelessly to maintain vital court operations in collaboration with staff and legal system partners.

Under Presiding Judge Gregory’s leadership, the courthouse re-opened with limited operations in early July 2020, and the court has since implemented virtual hearings using WebEx video/telephone conferencing. While the court faced a significant case backlog when it reopened to the public, a combination of socially distanced in-person and virtual hearings have significantly reduced the backlog.

While the court adapted to the ongoing pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and resulting outcries for reform brought an internal reckoning with SMC’s role in systemic racism. In an op-ed for the Seattle Times, Presiding Judge Gregory wrote, “I recognize that our court, like so many across this country, has significant work to do to tackle the racial injustices within and perpetrated by our criminal justice system. SMC judges are committed to making sure justice reigns in our courthouse. We will be making a sincere effort to hold ourselves accountable for the work we do. We believe there is a path forward to transform ourselves and build a legal system that equitably protects the rights of Black communities and all communities.”

Presiding Judge Gregory has demonstrated a strong commitment to equitable justice throughout his first year as Presiding Judge. He worked across agencies to reduce SMC’s jail population by considering motions for release, continuing out of custody appearances, and maintaining the in-custody arraignment calendar to ensure individuals had the opportunity for release as early as possible. He directed court leadership to examine court policies through a racial equity lens and make recommendations for reforms.

From eliminating discretionary fines and fees in criminal cases to implementing Seattle Community Court, an innovative pretrial release program, Judge Gregory has overseen a transformative year at Seattle Municipal Court. Presiding Judge Gregory has also committed to incorporating lessons learned from court user focus groups and surveys, so that the court’s 2021 workplan has been informed by direct feedback from court clients.

Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven González presented the Innovating Justice Award to Judge Gregory at today’s Washington Courts Board for Judicial Administration meeting. Judge Gregory was introduced to receive the award by Seattle Municipal Court Assistant Presiding Judge Adam Eisenberg.