The state Supreme Court may have saved the city of Spokane millions of dollars Thursday by ruling that district court judges had the authority to try city cases.
But the court’s unanimous reinstatement of two drunken-driving convictions doesn’t mean the city will get rid of its new Municipal Court system.
The state’s highest court reversed the local appeals court and reinstated convictions for Lawrence Rothwell and Henry Smith, ruling that Spokane County District Court Judge Patricia Walker had jurisdiction over the two city cases even though she wasn’t elected solely by city voters.
City Attorney Howard Delaney said he was “extremely pleased” with the decision, which agreed with most arguments the city made. Had the high court ruled the other way, some 10 years of District Court decisions on city cases would have been placed in jeopardy, he said.
Each year the city averages about 12,000 criminal cases, as many as 25,000 traffic tickets and 25,000 parking tickets, Delaney said. All of those could have been called into question, and those who paid fines could have filed for repayment. That cost was never calculated but could have been millions of dollars, he said.
“Hence the reason we’re so pleased,” Delaney said.
Attorney Breean Beggs works for the public interest law firm Center for Justice, which challenged the city’s District Court arrangement. He said that while the firm lost before the Supreme Court, it had already won the bigger victory. The city pulled out of the District Court system and set up the Municipal Court early this year.
“There was no downside (to the ruling)” Beggs said. “The city had already fixed it. The Legislature had already fixed it.”
At issue was whether district judges, who are elected by voters countywide, could legally serve as municipal judges. State law set up different ways – some of them conflicting – for municipal judges to be established, but the high court said the agreement between the city and county for district judges to serve as part-time municipal judges was legal. Only full-time municipal judges need to be elected by city voters, the court said.
When the appeals court overturned Walker’s convictions of Rothwell and Smith in 2007, the Legislature rewrote the law on municipal courts. This year, the city set up its own court with three judges appointed by the mayor who must face city voters in this year’s election. The ruling has no effect on the new Municipal Court, Delaney said, because with the changes in state law, the city “cannot go back.”