(COLIN HAFFNER/Chewelah Independent)
Superior Court may hold first appearance hearings pending possible appeal…
A dispute over preliminary first appearance hearings between the Superior and District Court since Jan. of 2018 has been given a little more clarity following a ruling by the Washington State’s Division III Appellate Court on March 12.
The decision of the Appellate Court stems from a legal disagreement between the two courts which started around Jan. 29 of 2018 when an administrator from the Superior Court sent an email to the judges and clerks of both the District and Superior Courts directing that all first appearances in court would be done by Superior Court Judges Pat Monasmith and Jessica Reeves at the daily noon sessions. The Appellate Court ruled that first hearings could be held in both Superior and District Court.
According to Judge Gina Tveit, District Court would hear first appearances and that was traditionally how the courts worked until Superior Court changed their schedule in 2017. State law does allow for either court to make first appearances since both district and superior court judges are magistrates of the law. Constitutionally, people arrested have the right to be before a judge within the first 24 to 48 hours.
She has 30 days to appeal the decision by the Appellate Court.
Judge Rebecca Pennell wrote in the beginning of the ruling as a primer for the case decision “When one court exercises its jurisdiction in a specific case, the priority of action doctrine prohibits another court from interfering. But what constitutes the same case for purposes of the priority of action doctrine is not always clear.” Tveit said once a person is booked and a citation number is given for either District or Superior court, that respective court has jurisdiction over the case.
Just three days after the initial email from the Superior Court administrator, Judge Tveit said all cases initially handled by the Superior Court and directed to District Court were to be ignored. Tveit said that she tried to contact Superior Court about the manner but received no response. Tveit said she reached out to the Administrative Office of the Courts for the State of Washington concerning the manner and with her conversation with the office, Tveit said she made a decision to not file orders signed by a Superior Court Judge in an existing District Court case, “in order to protect the constitutional integrity of the District Court.”
According to Stevens County Deputy Prosecutor Will Ferguson in an article from the Spokesman Review, this order carried a potential to drastically affect the due process of those charged with crimes, in some cases leaving people ordered for pretrial release by the Superior Court in jail,
“I can’t say whether the general population understands how awful and terrifying it is to be put in a jail cell and learn you are not going to be released because one judge says she’s not going to follow the order of another judge,” Ferguson told the Spokesman.
Counsel for the District Court, Jerry Moberg responded to Ferguson’s comments in the Spokesman by saying there was no evidence that any person was in harm’s way due to Judge Tveit’s decision.
“The Stevens County Prosecutor inappropriately stated that ‘people were being harmed by Judge Tveit’s refusal’ to accept the Superior Court orders and ‘peoples safety was placed in danger.’ He is wrong. There is no evidence that any defendant was harmed or anyone was in danger as a result of this dispute. All defendants were provided their full due process rights and timely and appropriate orders on release were entered throughout this process,” Moberg wrote in his response to the Spokesman.
In Judge Pennell’s briefing analysis on the case, she noted “Superior and District courts are separate courts, but they enjoy a significant amount of concurrent criminal authority,” continuing later to state, “to guard against misuse of concurrent jurisdiction, our case law has developed the doctrine of priority action. Also known as the first-in-time rule, the priority of action doctrine holds that “the court which first gains jurisdiction of cause retains the exclusive authority to deal with the action until the controversy is resolved.” Sherwin v. Arveson, 96 Wn.2d 77,80, 633 P.2d 1335 (1981).”
On Feb. 5 of 2018, the Superior Court judges signed an administrative order that all preliminary appearances were to be heard by the Superior Court judges or a Court Commissioner. The order noted the purpose was to alleviate scheduling conflicts between the courts, the hardships on the jails to hold prisoners between first appearances in both courts, frequent interruptions and delays, and the ability of the superior court to hear all first appearances during the noon hour, according to the appellate briefing.
Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen then filed a petition for writ of mandamus, an order from a court to direct an inferior government official to fulfill their official duties, to direct Judge Tveit to rescind her directive and recognize the validity of superior court preliminary appearance orders.
Judge Tveit pointed out her belief that Rasmussen’s filing of an appeal showed “clear issues of a conflict of interest… in representing one client in a case brought against another client, as the prosecutor is charged with the duty of representing all elected officials and county departments.”
Rasmussen cited in the appeal in support of the writ of mandamus a case in which the Superior Court presided over the first appearance of an individual over two gross misdemeanors. A Superior Court judge entered a hearing order and sent the case to the District Court that same day, but the District Court did not file the order or put the case on the District Court’s docket, Judge Pennell’s briefing said.
A visiting judge was brought in to hear the writ of mandamus. Superior Court Judge John Strohmaier from Lincoln County heard the case, and ultimately sided with Judge Tveit, citing the priority of action rule. The appellate briefing noted that Judge Strohmaier stated in his memorandum opinion on March 7, 2018 that “a preliminary appearance is part of a criminal case and once the District Court assumes jurisdiction of a case through a filed criminal charge, the superior court is prohibited from exercising jurisdiction.”
The state appealed Judge Strohmaier’s decision, prompting the decision from the appellate court that established a separation of preliminary proceeding from the criminal proceedings.
“A court’s authority to hold a preliminary appearance hearing is separate from the authority to adjudicate a criminal trial, and the preliminary appearance hearing has no preclusive effect on the criminal trial process,” Judge Pennell wrote, “Because a preliminary hearing is distinct from the criminal trial process, a District Court’s exercise of authority over a substantive criminal charge does not preclude the Superior Court from holding a preliminary appearance hearing.”
“This matter is therefore reversed, with instruction that the State be granted a writ of mandamus directing the District Court to recognize the validity of preliminary appearance orders issued by the Superior Court,” Judge Pennell concluded in the decision.
Tveit’s lawyer said that this first-appearance exception was not clearly set forth in this case before the dispute.
“The bottom line is that Judge Tveit did what she believed was appropriate and necessary to protect the integrity of the judicial system and the rights of every citizen who may appear in her court.
The newly created exception to the first-in-time rule will provide the court with more flexibility in handling first appearances but this exception was not clearly set forth in the case law before this ruling,” Moberg said.