History of the Office of City Attorney/Corporation Counsel

The following history and biographical sketches were provided by the Law Department.

The City Attorney is the chief legal advisor, litigator and municipal prosecutor for the City of Seattle, as well as head of the city's Law Department. Employing 90 attorneys and nearly as many staff, the Law Department gives legal advice on all aspects of city business while handling roughly 12,000 civil and criminal litigation matters every year. Due to the variety and scope of the Department's responsibilities, it is divided into four divisions: Civil, Criminal, Administration, and Precinct Liaison. Each division has a director and supervisors.

The Law Department began small, in 1876. Legal advice was originally given by one person, who was appointed by the City Council as needs arose. Early city attorneys acted as advisors to the City and sometimes as criminal prosecutors, but in these early days there were few standing rules detailing how criminals should be prosecuted.

Between 1877 and 1883, the City Attorney remained an appointed official, though the scope of his work grew to include more civil proceedings as well as a more formalized role as prosecutor. In 1883, amendments to the City Charter stipulated that the City Attorney would be elected "in the manner provided for the election of mayor and councilmen," inaugurating the City Attorney's current status as an official responsible to the people of Seattle. For the next seven years, the City Attorney acted as an independent legal advisor to the City on the legal proceedings that the City had an interest in, as specified in the 1877 Charter that formally established the office.

Statehood in 1889 brought a new charter for the City in 1890. Article XV of this "Home Rule" Charter established an autonomous Law Department, as well as the office of Corporation Counsel. The Corporation Counsel, also elected by the people, was responsible for providing legal advice to the City, drafting various documents, and representing the City in all court proceedings "except criminal actions and actions on bail bonds." The City Attorney's role was reduced to criminal prosecutions, and though the City Attorney remained an elected official, the majority of his duties were assigned to the Corporation Counsel.

The 1892 amendments to the City Charter wrought substantial changes to the Law Department. The Corporation Counsel was granted the power to appoint the City Attorney as well as a "clerk or stenographer," and the Law Department added a third attorney in the form of an Assistant Corporation Counsel appointed by the City Council. These changes formalized the Corporation Counsel's role as head of the Law Department and chief legal advisor to the City, a position underscored in the amended text with language that granted the Corporation Counsel "full supervisory control of all litigation of the city." These changes were finally reinforced by an 1893 Charter amendment, which gave the Corporation Counsel the power to appoint his assistant, as well as the City Attorney.

The 1890s also saw the publication of the first annual reports of the Law Department, detailing the general activities of the Corporation Counsel and his staff over a given year. Peppered with names familiar to anyone who has studied Seattle's early history, these reports reveal that Seattle's rapid growth led to numerous legal actions needed to authorize road-building and infrastructure work. Condemnation suits, made necessary by the chaotic and patchwork nature of Seattle's land ownership in the 19th century, were the most common type of legal work. By far the most complex of these condemnation suits concerned the Cedar River Watershed, with which city officials intended to supply Seattle with drinking water.

The turn of the century brought a greater degree of regularity to the Law Department's business. After an early zeal for charter revisions, city government's general shape and practices settled into a mold that would remain substantially unchanged while the geography and economy of Seattle underwent more rapid expansion. Corporation Counsel in that era reported a substantial increase in the Law Department's workload, mostly driven by this growth, but were not able to increase their number of employees due to charter restrictions.

By the early 1920s, the Law Department had again expanded to include several more Assistant Corporation Counsel, and by 1926 the charter reflected the fact that the Corporation Counsel had the authority to appoint "such assistant corporation counsel and employees as shall be provided by ordinance." Though the charter language eventually reverted to language that seemed to specify just one assistant in addition to the City Attorney, this had no effect on the actual number of attorneys employed by the Law Department, which remained constant at between eight and 10 Assistant Corporation Counsel for the next 20 years.

The stock market crash of 1929, as well as the subsequent depression and war, substantially changed the department. In 1930, Anton C. Van Soelen became Corporation Counsel, and it fell to him to preside over a 15-year period of severe budget austerity, while simultaneously providing legal advice on the local implementation of dozens of national programs as part of the New Deal. No notable changes in the structure or powers of the Law Department occurred, and it is likely none would have been possible given the rigid controls placed on the department's budget. During the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s, the department numbered roughly 10 lawyers and four staff.

In 1946, the charter was brought up to date with the reality of the Law Department: "The law department shall consist of a corporation counsel who shall appoint the assistant corporation counsel and city prosecutors, who may be removed at will." What arose, as documented in the annual reports, was a system whereby a "first assistant" Corporation Counsel acted as deputy, and a number of Assistant Corporation Counsel provided legal advice and representation to the City. The number of staff and assistants would increase throughout the next several decades.

The next major reorganization of the Law Department did not occur until the election of 1977, when Douglas N. Jewett defeated incumbent Corporation Counsel John P. Harris. This was the first time that an incumbent head of the Law Department had been beaten in an election since 1916. As a result of the reorganization, the department was divided into five divisions, with three responsible for providing legal advice "in the formative stages of [city] projects," as well as a Criminal division responsible for prosecutions, and a Litigation division that handled torts. The Law Department still provided for criminal prosecutions, legal advice on policy and projects, and litigation, but the number of divisions changed and each division now had smaller, subsidiary departments headed by a supervising Assistant City Attorney.

In addition to the reorganization of the department in 1977, the offices of Corporation Counsel and City Attorney were merged, making the City Attorney the elected head of the Law Department, as well as chief prosecutor and legal advisor to the city.

The historical records show that as the City grew and became more complex, so did the Law Department and its legal work. Unlike most cities, Seattle is a full-service municipal corporation that provides power, water, sewage, garbage, police, fire, and an abundance of other services ranging from parks, roads, licensing and permitting to arts, human services, and neighborhood organizing. The department's work touches almost everything the City does, making it somewhat unique within the structure of city government. The city's lawyers have to be both experts on the law, and knowledgeable enough about city policy to be able to provide useful and consistent advice to clients in every department and level of city government.

Also uniquely among the departments, Seattle's Law Department is the only one in the state whose chief is also elected by the voters. The job of the City Attorney therefore involves being an advocate not just for city officials, but also for the needs of the public. When an attorney tries a case, he or she appears "for the City of Seattle."

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.