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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

No more waiting to exhale: Court upholds city convictions

That big sigh you heard Thursday morning was from City Hall.

It was prompted by the state Supreme Court ruling that Spokane County district court judges had the authority to try cases for the city under an agreement between the city and county governments.

The decision may have saved the city from returning millions of dollars in fines and fees.A unanimous Supreme Court upheld two misdemeanor convictions from 2005 which an appeals court had voided over questions of the judge’s authority.

The Supreme Court reinstated drunk-driving convictions for Lawrence Rothwell and Henry Smith, ruling that District Court Judge Patricia Walker had jurisdiction 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 court decisions would have been placed in jeopardy, he said.

The city averages about 12,000 criminal cases, as many as 25,000 traffic tickets and 25,000 parking tickets each year, 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.

The issue involved whether district judges, who are elected by all county voters, could serve as municipal judges. State law set up different ways 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 court judges would need to be elected by city voters, the court said.

After the case was filed, the city set up its own municipal court with 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 state law has changed and the city “cannot go back”.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.