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State v. Stevens County District Court Judge

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

December 12, 2019

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent,
v.
STEVENS COUNTY DISTRICT COURT JUDGE, Petitioner.

          OWENS, J.

         This case asks us to determine whether a superior court may conduct preliminary appearance hearings for misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors originally filed in district court. Because our court rules authorize the superior court to conduct these hearings regardless of which court files these misdemeanors and because there are no statutory or constitutional restrictions on this authority, we hold a superior court may conduct preliminary appearance hearings for misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors that are originally filed in district court. Accordingly, we affirm the Court of Appeals' judgment and remand the case to the Stevens County Superior Court to issue a writ of mandamus against the Stevens County District Court to accept and file cases from the superior court.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 29, 2018, the Stevens County Superior Court (Superior Court) ordered all preliminary appearance hearings for misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors (Misdemeanors) to be heard by the Superior Court, including cases filed in the Stevens County District Court (District Court). The Superior Court asserted this order was necessary to prevent scheduling conflicts between the courts, court clerks, prosecutors, defense counsel, and the county jail.

         On February 2, 2018, District Court Judge Gina Tveit ordered the District Court staff not to file any orders in a District Court case unless those orders had been signed by a District Court judge-effectively barring any cases signed by a Superior Court judge under the January 29 order.

         On February 8, 2018, the State filed a writ of mandamus with the Superior Court directing the District Court to permit filing of orders signed by Superior Court judges. The Superior Court subsequently ordered the writ against the District Court.

         On March 7, 2018, a visiting judge in the Superior Court held the District Court was not required to recognize the Superior Court's orders in cases originally filed in the District Court, reasoning that neither party cited to any case law or statute granting the Superior Court the authority to sign orders for these cases absent the District Court's authorization. The visiting judge also raised and dismissed the priority of action rule, which states that "the court which first gains jurisdiction of a 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).

         The State appealed the visiting judge's decision. The Court of Appeals, Division Three, reversed and held the District Court's refusal of Superior Court cases was legally erroneous. State v. Stevens County Dist. Court Judge, 7 Wn.App. 2d 927, 936, 436 P.3d 430 (2019). However, in its reasoning, the Court of Appeals stated a preliminary appearance hearing is "distinct from the criminal trial process" and, thus, the priority of action rule does not apply because a preliminary appearance hearing is not a '"critical stage'" of proceedings. Id. at 930, 935. The District Court appealed the Court of Appeals' decision, and we subsequently granted review. State v. Stevens County Dist. Court Judge, 193 Wn.2d 1018 (2019).

         ISSUES

         1. Does the priority of action rule apply when a superior court conducts the preliminary appearance hearing for a case that was originally filed in a district court?

         2. May a superior court conduct preliminary appearance hearings and enter related orders in all county misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors, even when a charge has been filed in the county's district court and the district court assumed exclusive jurisdiction over the trial process?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "Writs of mandamus are subject to two separate standards of review." Cost Mgmt. Servs., Inc. v. Lakewood,178 Wn.2d 635, 648, 310 P.3d 804 (2013). If the issue raised is "whether a statute prescribes a duty that will support issuance of a writ," then our review is de novo. Id. at 649. Here, the issue is whether the Superior Court may require the District Court to file Misdemeanors after the Superior Court conducts preliminary appearance hearings for these Misdemeanors. Therefore, the issue is ...


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