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Washington Supreme Court ends legal turf battle in Stevens County

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 18, 2019

The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in this January 2019 photo. A man detained at the border crossing near Northport had his criminal drug convictions erased by the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday, after justices said his rights were violated by federal agents. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in this January 2019 photo. A man detained at the border crossing near Northport had his criminal drug convictions erased by the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday, after justices said his rights were violated by federal agents. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The Washington Supreme Court has ended a turf battle between Stevens County’s district and superior courts that began in early 2018.

In a unanimous opinion issued last week, the high court’s nine justices sided with Stevens County Superior Court judges who sought to preside over preliminary hearings in cases that were originally filed in District Court. Such hearings often determine whether a defendant will be let out of jail while awaiting trial.

The state Constitution gives superior courts “original jurisdiction” over all criminal matters, but legislative acts have carved out a role for district courts. While superior courts primarily handle felonies and more complicated civil cases, district courts address traffic violations, misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.

Scheduling conflicts arose for clerks, attorneys and jailers when both Stevens County courts presided over first appearances, so Superior Court judges Jessica Reeves and Patrick Monasmith tried to assume responsibility for all of those hearings.

District Court Judge Gina Tveit, who believed Reeves and Monasmith overstepped their authority, responded by ordering her court administrator not to file any first-appearance orders unless they were signed by a District Court judge.

Tveit continued holding her own preliminary hearings and ignored orders by the Superior Court judges, including at least one for a domestic violence protection order.

Tveit quickly asked the Supreme Court to issue a ruling on the matter, but the justices instead waited for the dispute to move through the trial and appellate phases.

Lincoln County Judge John Strohmaier, who visited Stevens County to hear the case, ruled in Tveit’s favor, saying the Superior Court judges could not unilaterally intervene in her cases. Washington’s Division III Court of Appeals overturned that ruling.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in October. The justices found that nothing in Washington statutes, case law or court rules prevents superior courts from intervening in preliminary appearances.

Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen, whose office represented the Superior Court, said Tuesday that scheduling conflicts are still a problem. But he didn’t know if Reeves and Monasmith would resume presiding over District Court preliminary hearings.

In an email, Tveit said there are “inherent intricacies and difficulties when two completely separate courts are making decisions in the same case.”

“Each court has a separate clerical and administrative staff and its own unique computer data system that the other court does not have access to,” Tveit said. “Whatever their decision, District Court will continue to make every effort to see that its cases are handled in as orderly and efficient manner as possible.”

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