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Riddle v. Elofson

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

April 25, 2019

JANELLE RIDDLE, Yakima County Clerk, Petitioner,

          WIGGINS, J.

         This case concerns the statutory authority of superior court judges to order a county clerk to procure a supplemental bond as a condition for maintaining her elected office. The Yakima County Superior Court bench ordered Yakima County Clerk Janelle Riddle to obtain an additional bond and warned that failure to comply would result in the court's declaring her office vacant. Riddle sought a writ of prohibition from this court to prevent enforcement of the order.

         We deny the writ of prohibition. The Yakima County judges did not exceed their jurisdiction by issuing the supplemental bond order, and Riddle could have availed herself of a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy at law-an injunction. Thus, prohibition will not lie. Further, we deny the Yakima County judges' motion to supplement the record.


         Riddle was elected clerk of Yakima County in 2014. Her term of office ran from January 1, 2015, through December 31, 2018. The month she took office, Riddle obtained a public official's bond, issued by Western Surety Company, of $200, 000.

         Riddle's tenure as clerk was not without conflict. In addition to a recall attempt, In re Recall of Riddle, 189 Wn.2d 565, 403 P.3d 849 (2017), the state auditor issued reports in 2015, 2016, and 2017, detailing financial deficiencies in Riddle's office. The reports identify, among other things, monthly bank account reconciliation problems and unbilled jury services estimated at $44, 500; untimely transmittals of child support orders, resulting in $206, 500 lost reimbursement to the county; and misappropriation of funds.

         Based in part on the auditor's reports and concern that Riddle's existing bond was insufficient to cover potential claims against the clerk's office, a majority of the Yakima County Superior Court bench[1] (the Judges) issued an ex parte order requiring Riddle to "secure and provide proof of an additional bond for $200, 000, increasing her office's bond coverage to $400, 000. Accompanying the order was a letter from presiding Judge David Elofson, advising Riddle that failure to comply by June 6, 2018, would result in the superior court's declaring her position "vacant" under RCW 36.23.020.

         Riddle's counsel wrote to the Judges, arguing that the order was without legal authority. Riddle asked that the order be withdrawn or vacated. Presiding Judge Elofson responded that the clerk's office would be declared vacant unless a supplemental bond was secured.

         In June 2018, Riddle filed in this court for a writ of prohibition against the Judges. The petition asserted that the supplemental bond order exceeded the superior court bench's statutory authority and that its ex parte issuance deprived Riddle of proper notice and opportunity to be heard, in violation of due process. Riddle also moved to stay the order pending a decision on her petition and for accelerated review, which was granted.

         On accelerated consideration, Supreme Court Commissioner Michael Johnston dismissed Riddle's action for failure to show the superior court lacked jurisdiction or acted in excess of its jurisdiction to warrant a writ of prohibition. We granted discretionary review and retained the petition for determination, maintaining the stay issued by our commissioner. Riddle and the Judges submitted an agreed statement of facts and record. The Judges submitted a nonagreed statement of facts to which Riddle objected. We passed determination of the Judges' motion to the merits.


         We are asked to decide whether to issue a writ of prohibition against the Judges of the Yakima County Superior Court. The state Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in prohibition actions against state officers. Wash. Const, art. IV, § 4; RAP 16.2(a). A superior court judge is a state officer for the purposes of original prohibition jurisdiction. State ex rel. Edelstein v. Foley, 6 Wn.2d 444, 448, 107 P.2d 901 (1940); Wash. Const, art. IV, § 4. A county clerk is also the clerk of the superior court. Wash. Const, art. IV, § 26.

         Prohibition is an ancient writ, dating from the 12th century. James L. High, Extraordinary Legal Remedies 707 (3d ed. 1896). It has survived as one of the few remaining artifacts of the English writ system. Wash. Const, art. IV, § 4; RAP 16.1(b), 16.2; RCW 7.16.290; High, supra, at 707. A kind of "'common-law injunction against governmental usurpation, '" the writ of prohibition is a legal order typically issued from a superior court to prevent an inferior court from exceeding its jurisdiction. Black's Law Dictionary 1405 (10th ed. 2014) (defining "writ of prohibition" (quoting Benjamin J. Shipman, Handbook of Common-Law Pleading § 341, at 542 (3d ed. 1923))); Winsor v. Bridges, 24 Wash. 540, 542, 64 P.78O (1901); see also High, supra, at 715; David W. Raack, A History of Injunctions in England before 1700, 61 Ind. L.J. 539, 545 (1986).[2]

         The writ is an extraordinary remedy[3] to be used with "great caution and forbearance, for the furtherance of justice and to secure order ... in judicial proceedings." High, supra, at 709. Washington courts have issued these writs to prevent an official from encroaching on the jurisdiction of others and to "enlarge the powers of their positions." County of Spokane v. Local No. 1553, Amer. Fed'n of State, County & Mun. Emps., 76 Wn.App. 765, 769-70, 888 P.2d 735 (1995). The writ is preventive rather than corrective. High, supra, at 710. It issues to arrest execution of a future, specific act and not to undo an action already performed. Local No. 1553, 76 Wn.App. at 769-70; High, supra, at 710-11.

         Whether a writ will issue is a narrow inquiry. A court looks not to the nature or extent of injury but to the question of power and jurisdiction of an inferior court. High, supra, at 714. A writ of prohibition will not issue to prevent the commission of error, take the place of an appeal, or serve as a writ of review for the correction of an error. State ex rel. N.Y. Cas. Co. v. Superior Court, 31 Wn.2d 834, 838-39, 199 P.2d 581 (1948) (citing cases in support).


         With these historical considerations in mind, we turn to merits of the issues presented. We first determine whether Riddle has met the requirements for a writ of prohibition to issue. As explained below, we hold that she has not. Accordingly, we deny her petition. In addition, we decline to reach Riddle's due process argument because we can resolve the case on nonconstitutional grounds. Finally, we deny the Judges' motion to supplement the record.

         I. Writ of Prohibition

         We begin our analysis with the elements of prohibition. Courts may issue a writ of prohibition "only when two conditions are met: '(1) [a]bsence or excess of jurisdiction, and (2) absence of a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy in the course of legal procedure.'" Skagit County Pub. Hosp. Dist. No. 304 v. Skagit County Pub. Hosp. Dist. No. 1, 177 Wn.2d 718, 722-23, 305 P.3d 1079 (2013) (alteration in original) (quoting Kreidler v. Eikenberry, 111 Wn.2d 828, 838, 766 P.2d 438 (1989)). Although the common law writ of prohibition restrains the unauthorized exercise of judicial or quasi-judicial power, the statutory writ of prohibition applies to executive, administrative, and legislative acts as well. Id. at 723. The instant petition seeks to restrain judicial action; therefore, we are concerned only with common law prohibition.

         A. The Judges did not act in excess of their jurisdiction

         We first consider whether the Judges exceeded their jurisdiction. Both parties offer statutory-based answers to this question: the Judges contend they did not act in excess of their jurisdiction because they had authority under RCW 36.23.020 to issue the supplemental bond order. Riddle responds that such an argument conflicts with RCW 36.16.050. Both arguments evaluate jurisdiction and statutory authority as fundamentally the same concept. Assuming without deciding they are equivalent for the purposes of this case, we must then decide whether RCW 36.23.020 provides the required authority. We hold that it does.

         The application and interaction of RCW 36.23.020 and RCW 36.16.050 appears to be an issue of first impression in Washington. The meaning of these statutes is a question of law, which we review de novo, considering the statutory scheme as a whole. Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002).

         RCW 36.23.020 provides,

When the judge or judges of any court, or a majority of them, believe that the clerk of the court does not have a good and sufficient bond on file, or that the bond is not large enough in amount, such judge or judges shall enter an order requiring him or her, within such time as may be specified in the order, to execute and present to them a good and sufficient bond, in such sum as may be fixed by the order. In case of his or her failure to file the bond within ten days from the expiration of the date fixed the judge or judges shall declare the office vacant.

         Riddle counters that RCW 36.23.020 cannot provide unfettered authority to order additional bond coverage when another, related provision, RCW 36.16.050, establishes the maximum amount of a clerk's bond.

         RCW 36.16.050 states,

Every county official before he or she enters upon the duties of his or her office shall furnish a bond conditioned that he or she will faithfully perform the duties of his or her office and account for and pay over all money which may come into his or her hands by virtue of his or her office .... Bonds of elective county officers shall be as follows:
(3) Clerk: Amount to be fixed in a penal sum not less than double the amount of money liable to come into his or her hands and sureties to be approved by the judge or a majority of the judges presiding over the court of which he or she is clerk: PROVIDED, That the maximum bond fixed for the clerk shall not exceed in amount that required for the treasurer in the same county;
(8) Treasurer: Sureties to be approved by the proper county legislative authority and the amounts to be fixed by the proper county legislative authority at double the amount liable to come into the treasurer's hands during his or her term, the maximum amount of the bond, however, not to exceed:
(a) In each county with a population of two hundred ten thousand or more, two hundred fifty thousand dollars.

(Emphasis added.) Here, the Yakima County treasurer's bond is set at $250, 000. Riddle argues that securing $200, 000 in addition to her original $200, 000 bond would result in $400, 000 in coverage-clearly in excess of the prescribed $250, 000 "maximum amount" under RCW 36.16.050(3) and (8).

         Riddle also contends that the Judges' use of RCW 36.23.020 renders RCW 36.16.050 meaningless. A bond could be properly approved in the maximum original amount under RCW 36.16.050 and immediately followed by an order to obtain a second bond under RCW 36.23.020 as a condition of remaining in office, thereby flouting RCW 36.16.050's limit.

         This reasoning, however, ignores the plain language of both RCW 36.23.020 and RCW 36.16.050. "If the statute's meaning is plain on its face, we give effect to that plain meaning as the expression of what was intended." TracFone Wireless, Inc. v. Dep't of Revenue, 170 Wn.2d 273, 281, 242 P.3d 810 (2010). "Plain meaning 'is to be discerned from the ordinary meaning of the language at issue, the context of the statute in which that provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole.' State v. Engel, 166 Wn.2d 572, 578, 210 P.3d 1007 (2009). While we look to the broader statutory context for guidance, we 'must not add words where the legislature has chosen not to include them,' and we must 'construe statutes such that all of the ...

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