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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Judge bows out of cat pee case involving Spokane County judge, citing conflict of interest

This aerial photo shows the Spokane County Courthouse on Oct. 26, 2013, in front of the Public Safety Building and the Spokane County Jail. Spokane police say an intern in the city prosecutor’s office was assaulted Tuesday morning in a women’s restroom in the Public Safety Building. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A case that began with cat pee on a judge’s porch took another unusual turn Friday when the judge hearing the case recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest.

As it turns out, both judges have been represented by the same attorney in separate legal matters.

Judge Patrick Monasmith, who usually presides in Stevens County Superior Court, had been expected to decide whether to unseal a case brought by Spokane County Superior Judge Michael Price against Price’s neighbor on the South Hill. Price blamed his neighbor’s cat for using his back porch as a litter box, then successfully argued to have the case records sealed.

Monasmith bowed out of the case during a brief hearing Friday, revealing that attorney Bob Dunn recently represented him in pleadings before the state Supreme Court, and that there is a “companion matter in the appellate court which may or may not involve continuing representation by Mr. Dunn and/or his office.”

Dunn also has been representing Price in the cat pee case for about a week, following the departure of Price’s previous attorney, Steven Hughes.

“It seems to me that no litigant should have to wonder whether the judge has a special relationship of one kind or another with the attorney for a party,” Monasmith said at Friday’s hearing. “So this, to me, was a mandatory recusal.”

It wasn’t clear what kind of matter Monasmith and Dunn had before the Supreme Court, but Monasmith said it had been resolved “favorably.”

Dunn attended the hearing by phone and did not respond to a message seeking comment shortly afterward.

Monasmith ordered almost all of the records in the Price case banned from public disclosure in November. A prominent legal scholar filed a motion last month to unseal the case on First Amendment grounds.

On Friday, Monasmith said if he didn’t have to recuse himself, he would have considered the motion by Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“When I received Professor Volokh’s pleadings a couple weeks ago, and our Stevens County court administrator started working out a hearing date, I observed that every judge should be open to the notion that they make mistakes, and if they did, they ought to be able to examine them,” Monasmith said.

The sealing order will remain in effect at least until a new judge is assigned to the case. Like Monasmith, the judge will have to visit from another county to avoid having one of Price’s fellow Spokane County judges hear the case, which also could present a conflict of interest.

“I have no way of knowing how long that will take, and I again apologize for what I know will be an inevitable delay,” Monasmith said. “But perhaps the parties could take a step back, and maybe be able to work something out without protracted litigation.”

Price was appointed to Spokane County Superior Court in 2003, and in 2014 he was a finalist for a vacant seat on the state Supreme Court. He did not attend Friday’s hearing.

The cat pee case is not the first personal legal matter that Price has had sealed from public view. In 2005, he convinced a Lincoln County court commissioner to seal his divorce filings, a move that some at the time called unconstitutional.