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Sunday, January 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Turf battle between Stevens County judges headed to Washington Supreme Court

UPDATED: Sat., July 20, 2019

The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen on Jan. 11, 2019. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen on Jan. 11, 2019. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Early last year, scheduling conflicts led to a turf battle between judges in Stevens County’s district and superior courts.

Now the Washington Supreme Court has agreed to review the matter and sort out which judges have jurisdiction over initial court hearings, which often determine whether a person will be let out of jail while awaiting trial.

“I strongly believe that the best practice is to have the District Court judge make these important first-appearance decisions for all citizens that appear before the District Court. That is part of the job I was elected to perform,” District Court Judge Gina Tveit said in a statement.

The Washington 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.

Tveit had been holding first-appearance hearings at 11 a.m. each weekday. Early last year, Superior Court Judges Jessica Reeves and Patrick Monasmith argued the hearings had “historically given rise to scheduling conflicts for and between the courts, the clerks, the jail, the prosecutors and indigent defense counsel.”

Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen said Superior Court was often “brought to a standstill” when defense attorneys left for hearings in District Court, and jailers struggled to keep track of where to take defendants.

At the time, Monasmith and Reeves wrote: “Superior Court has been unable to conduct court for up to an hour or more while the preliminary appearances were being heard in District Court. Defendants who have been compelled to appear in Superior Court and the general public are also left waiting during those delays of court.”

The judges tried to alleviate those problems by “bifurcating” the first-appearance docket, with District Court handling misdemeanors at 11 a.m. and Superior Court handling felonies at 1 p.m.

But Monasmith and Reeves said that created new problems: Jailers had to make two trips to the courthouse each weekday, and some defendants had to show up for two hearings if they faced both misdemeanor and felony charges.

In late January 2018, Superior Court Administrator Evelyn Bell sent an email notifying Tveit and prosecutors that Superior Court was assuming responsibility for all first appearances and that defendants would appear in court by video feed from the jail.

Tveit, who believes Reeves and Monasmith overstepped, refused to cede her authority over first appearances and directed her court administrator, Nadine Borders, 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. In one case, prosecutors said, the District Court ignored a protection order that the Superior Court had issued in a domestic violence case, potentially leaving the victim in danger. The District Court administrator also told the jail commander to keep the suspect in jail after a Superior Court judge ordered him released.

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 Superior Court could not unilaterally intervene in her cases.

In a brief for Washington’s Division III Court of Appeals, Deputy Prosecutor Will Ferguson argued that Tveit had constructed “a false image of chaotic interference in misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases” and said Superior Court’s involvement in her cases would cease after first appearances.

“Instead of disingenuously characterizing this case as two pilots trying to fly the same plane, (Tveit) should recognize the deeper impact of this case,” Ferguson wrote. “This case gets to the very foundation of our court system. No district court should be permitted to wall itself off and declare itself sovereign, especially in the face of clear constitutional authority.”

The three-judge appellate court favored the Superior Court judges and reversed Strohmaier’s ruling. Tveit’s attorney, Jerry Moberg, said in a statement: “We are concerned with the problems that might occur under the procedure adopted by the Court of Appeals. We are confident that the matter will be fully considered and properly resolved by the Supreme Court.”

Though it hinges on abstract legal theories, the case has a political backdrop. Rasmussen and Tveit have publicly sparred over several cases in recent years.

Rasmussen has accused Tveit of judicial malpractice and, in 2014, asked a Spokane County judge to review convictions that his deputies had won in her courtroom, citing concerns about the defendants’ constitutional rights. Judge Aimee Maurer threw out three convictions.

During her successful re-election campaign in November, Tveit accused Rasmussen and his office of an “unlawful expansion of prosecutorial power and influence, the result of which has been an endless barrage of mudslinging and personal attacks against Judge Gina Tveit.”

Arguments before the Supreme Court are scheduled in October, and Rasmussen said he’s confident the justices will uphold the appellate ruling. He believes they want to establish a Supreme Court precedent in case a similar dispute arises in another part of the state.

“I suspect they agreed to look at it because it involves judges and the power of the courts to hear cases and affects the whole state. This is their domain,” Rasmussen said. “I do not think they will reverse the Court of Appeals, but who knows?”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Dec. 17, 2019, to correct which party initially asked for a judgment from the state Supreme Court.

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