OLYMPIA – A case that could affect years’ worth of Spokane Municipal Court fines and rulings is in the hands of the state’s highest court.
The state Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of Lawrence J. Rothwell and Henry E. Smith, who were charged with misdemeanors in 2005. Smith was convicted of drunken driving; Rothwell of being in control of a car while under the influence.
Both men fought the charges, challenging Judge Patti Walker’s right to hear the case. In late 2007, a state court of appeals ruled that they were right: Walker hadn’t properly been elected to hear municipal cases.
The city appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard the case May 21.
To Breean Beggs, executive director of the Center for Justice, the matter is simple: A city judge should be picked by city – not countywide – voters.
“That’s how you hold people accountable in a democracy,” he said.
It could be done directly, with a citywide vote. Or it could be done indirectly, with the mayor appointing district court judges to hear municipal cases. In Walker’s case, Beggs said, neither happened. Like other district court judges, she was elected by the entire county.
The city’s attorneys argue that it doesn’t matter. Charles Wiggins, representing the city, told the justices that Walker was properly elected by city and county voters combined, and “our position is she didn’t need to be shown on the ballot as a municipal judge.”
“The idea that the municipal department was not properly created is simply a mistake in the court of appeals decision,” Wiggins said.
And the city has a fallback argument. The law says that if there’s no legitimate municipal court, then district judges – which Walker was – automatically have jurisdiction to hear city cases. (The city also notes that Walker won a strong majority of the vote among both city and county voters.)
The case is significant because it could affect a lot more people than just Rothwell and Smith. The city is worried about a cascade of similar challenges; more than 100 already have been filed.
And such challenges could ripple through municipal courts far beyond Spokane, the city argues.
“The effect of this decision represents profound, statewide impact that may well date back to 1995,” the city wrote in an early brief to the high court.
Although municipal courts typically hear relatively low-level crimes, such as traffic cases, drug possession, trespassing and petty crimes, the convictions also can affect sentencing for subsequent, more serious offenses.
“Fines and penalties collected as a result of municipal convictions over the years could be in the millions of dollars,” the city argues. All that, it says, is potentially at stake.
If the high court agrees that the convictions were invalid, “I hope they don’t make it retroactive” to other cases, said Spokane City Council President Joe Shogan.
“Otherwise, my God, you’ve really got a can of worms,” he said.
Beggs argues that if Rothwell and Smith win, it won’t throw open the jailhouse doors. The city in January revamped its court structure, and municipal court cases typically involve less than a year in jail, Beggs said.
“They’re saying, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ ” he said.
He argues that it does matter who elects local judges.
City voters, he says, will hopefully have a better sense of who understands how to deal with urban crime.
They may be more open, for example, to drug treatment, jail alternatives, or the problems of the mentally ill.
“Urban courts are for urban problems, and suburban courts are for suburban problems,” he said.