Confronting the Criminal “Punishment” System: Alumna Runs for Tacoma Municipal Court Judge

Dee Ann “Dee” Sonntag is the dignified embodiment of grit and advocacy; two attributes that go very well with robe and gavel. A graduate of both the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) and the University of Washington Seattle (UW Law School), Sonntag is currently pursuing a position as a Municipal Court Judge for the city of Tacoma. Born in Puyallup, Sonntag grew up around three older sisters. In fourth grade, her whole family moved to a small town called Roundup in the state of Montana but returned to Tacoma for her higher educational career; transferring from Tacoma Community College to the UWT.

Sonntag majored in Politics, Philosophy & Economics and minored in Human Rights. She was involved in multiple Student Organizations including Pre-Law Society, A.S.U.W.T., Politics, Philosophy & Economics Club, Public Relations Committee, and the Legislative Action Committee.  When asked if she had any advice for freshmen who are new to the U.W.T. campus, Sonntag suggested:

“I’ll pass on the good advice that I received, which was to remain open-minded and invest yourself as much as you can in your institution.”

Sonntag’s passion for equity led her to take the L.S.A.T. and apply to law school, leading her to the University of Idaho Law School, in Moscow; but her roots remain in Tacoma.

Sonntag applied as a transfer student to Seattle University and UWS to complete her final years of law school. Once accepted to both schools, she chose to attend the UW Law School with her loving family around her. Elaborating on how she stayed motivated during her grueling law school education, Sonntag shared with me that the urge to excel derived from her daughter:

“I had a little blonde, blue-eyed daughter looking at me. So, I just really wanted to succeed for her, for our family.”

With her family’s support along with her own perseverance, Sonntag graduated from the UW Law School and began her career as a public defender.

Because she’s observed the process of conviction, sentencing, and prison placement, I asked Sonntag if there’s any possibility of future institutionalized rehabilitation programs. Especially given the existence of for-profit prisons, noting that the desk I’m currently using at my dorm was created using prison labor. In her reply, Sonntag advised that rehabilitation programs would be an “uphill battle” to establish but, data could be the answer to legislative action:

“…when the investment is there, what the data shows us is that everybody benefits.”

When asked how she maintained her faith in the system, or if she had any faith in the system at all, we shared a laugh, then she explained her philosophy by indicating the importance of keeping faith in the role the system plays. However, she admits:

“I lose faith all the time, I call it the criminal punishment system, right?… There are better systems, but I believe in the important work that we do to try to make it better.”

The relationships Sonntag cultivated with her clients prepared her well for maintaining a fair, yet caring perspective when it comes to future legal cases. This approach continues to leave a profound influence on her clients, as she shared a recent reminder of the influence her compassion has on others:

“I was just going through my office the other day reading some of the letters my clients have sent to me. They are in prison serving their sentence but they’re sending me letters telling me ‘I know that you fought for me.’, ‘I know that you cared for me.’…To me, that’s my ‘why’ because again I see them as human beings, for all their faults.”

 Sonntag’s commitment to the community would bring a principled and understanding approach to the Tacoma Municipal Court. This is depicted in her admirable method for reviewing legal cases, wherein Sonntag begins at the vital step of approaching her client with the recognition of a fellow flawed human. In closing, Sonntag noted:

 “We are flawed human beings. I’m one myself. I always want to be on the side of helping people and defending people, and I think I can continue to do that work from the bench.”

 Thank you and best of luck, Dee!


Written by Law & Policy major Faith Rasmussen.