Rebecca L. Pennell - Alliance for Justice

Rebecca L. Pennell


Nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on March 20, 2024.

  • AFJ Supports
  • Court District Court
  • Date Nominated

On March 20, 2024, President Biden nominated Rebecca M. Pennell to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. Pennell is currently a judge on the Washington Court of Appeals in Spokane and has served in that capacity since 2016.  

Read our letter of support.


Rebecca Pennell was born in 1971 in Boulder, Colorado. She earned her B.A from the University of Washington in 1993 and her J.D., Order of the Coif, from Stanford Law School in 1996.

Legal Experience

After law school, Pennell clerked for the Honorable Robert H. Whaley of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, the very court Ms. Pennell is being nominated to. After completing her clerkship, Pennell was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Skadden Foundation. She dedicated her fellowship to serving at TeamChild, a legal services organization based in Yakima, Washington with a mission to provide comprehensive support, including education, healthcare, housing, and other essential services, to empower these young individuals and steer them toward positive life outcomes. TeamChild is renowned for its commitment to safeguarding the rights of youth entangled in or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. During her fellowship, Pennell immersed herself in advocacy work centered on special education, guardianship, emancipation, and mental health services for at-risk youth.

From 2000 to 2016, Pennell dedicated her legal expertise to the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho in Yakima, Washington. Initially, she served as a trial and appellate attorney, handling cases across the federal district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for eight years. Transitioning into a research and writing attorney role from 2008 to 2012, Pennell’s focus shifted solely to appellate litigation. During this period, she played a pivotal role in establishing two re-entry drug courts within the Eastern District of Washington, actively participating as the defense attorney representative on these teams. Her commitment to enhancing the justice system’s effectiveness and fairness was evident in her dual role as she continued to contribute to trial and appellate practices from 2012 onwards while maintaining her position as the defense representative on the re-entry drug court teams. Pennell’s multifaceted experience underscores her dedication to legal excellence and advocacy.

Judicial Experience

Since January 2016, Pennell has served as a judge on the Washington State Court of Appeals. She was first appointed by Governor Jay Inslee and then re-elected in 2016 and 2020. The Washington State Court of Appeals is an intermediate appellate court, handling direct appeals from Washington State Superior Courts. The court of appeals has three divisions; Pennell serves in Division Three, which is headquartered in Spokane, Washington.

Professional Activities and Accolades

Pennell has dedicated her career to public service. As an attorney, she played a pivotal role in establishing federal re-entry drug court teams, known as STEP teams, in Yakima and Richland, Washington. The Sobriety Treatment and Education Program (STEP) is a re-entry program for individuals on federal supervision who have substance addictions. Pennell, serving as the defense attorney, collaborated closely with a diverse team comprising a federal judge, an assistant U.S. attorney, a probation officer, and a treatment provider. Operating in a context without specific statutory backing or dedicated funding, the STEP teams showcased innovation and dedication and found a way to operate within existing court structures to develop an evidence-based support system for individuals with substance abuse disorders who were transitioning out of federal prison.

Pennell’s dedication to fostering equitable access to justice extends beyond her legal career into impactful community service initiatives. Serving as a board member of the Yakima YWCA from 2006 to 2012, she played a pivotal role in enhancing services for survivors of domestic violence. During her tenure, Pennell spearheaded a successful capital campaign aimed at establishing a new domestic violence shelter in Yakima. This shelter prioritized providing safe and private rooms for all clients, ensuring a supportive environment for those seeking refuge and assistance. Additionally, she championed the creation of a transitional housing facility tailored to families escaping domestic violence, offering crucial long-term housing support to those in vulnerable situations.

Pennell has also organized events to elevate the voices of individuals whose lives have been impacted by crime and violence. In 2019, she organized a listening session through the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima, at which a panel of individuals who had been impacted by crimes on Indian reservations shared their experiences with a group of law enforcement officers, federal prosecutors, and federal judges. Furthermore, in 2021, Pennell played a key role in organizing the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent (POWER) Act session jointly for the United States District Courts for the Eastern and Western Districts of Washington. During this session, she facilitated a compelling presentation led by women who had encountered challenges in seeking justice for domestic violence offenses in state courts.

The following cases are representative of Pennell’s judicial career: 

Little v. Rosauers Supermarkets

In Little v. Rosauers Supermarkets, 24 Wash. App. 2d 898, 521 P.3d 298 (2022), Ms. Little was injured after she slipped and fell in an icy supermarket parking lot. She sued, but her claim was denied on summary judgment under the theory she was aware of the icy conditions and therefore assumed the risk of injury. Pennell wrote the court’s unanimous opinion, reversing the summary judgment order. The decision explained that if the supermarket was aware patrons would assume the risk of walking across the parking lot despite the icy conditions, a complete defense based on assumption of the risk could not apply. Because there were issues of material fact, the matter was remanded for trial. On remand, the parties entered into a stipulated order of dismissal.

Matter of IMM

In Matter of IMM, 196 Wash. App. 914,385 P.3d 268 (2016), I.M.M.’s mother appealed a court order terminating her parental rights. She argued she was not provided necessary and available services to avoid termination, as required by Washington statute, because the state failed to provide services tailored to her cognitive impairment. Pennell authored the court’s majority decision reversing the termination of parental rights, holding that there was insufficient evidence the Department of Social and Health Services had accommodated the mother’s impairment. The case was then remanded for further proceedings. After remand, the superior court vacated the order terminating parental rights and reinstated the dependency proceedings.

State v. Fairley

In State v. Fairley, 12 Wash. App. 2d 315,457 P.3d 1150, review denied, 195 Wash. 2d 1027 (2020), Mr. Fairley was charged with multiple offenses after law enforcement found incriminating evidence on a third party’s cell phone. The evidence was obtained pursuant to a warrant that authorized seizure of the phone, but the warrant did not specifically authorize a search of the phone. Mr. Fairley filed a motion to suppress the search of the phone, claiming it violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The trial court determined Mr. Fairley had standing to challenge the search of the cell phone but denied the motion to suppress. On appeal, standing was not contested. Pennell authored a majority opinion reversing the denial of the suppression motion and remanding the case for further proceedings. The Supreme Court denied review, and on remand, the case was dismissed.