An attorney representing Shonto Pete filed a $5 million tort claim against Airway Heights and a $15 million tort claim against Cheney Thursday because both municipalities hired the same court commissioner to serve as judge even though she doesn’t have a law degree.
The tort claims were filed by Spokane attorney Kevin Roberts on behalf of Pete, who was sentenced last week to 90 days in jail by Airway Heights Court Commissioner Terri Cooper. That case is unrelated to a previous high-profile case when Pete was shot in the head by former Spokane Police Officer James “Jay” Olsen in 2007. a
Cooper has worked for at least 13 years for the City of Cheney and was recently appointed as a court commissioner in Airway Heights. In that role for both cities, Cooper is allowed to make all judicial decisions except hear jury trials.
“When you have people going through the judicial system and their rights are decided by someone who is not authorized to act as a judicial officer in the state of Washington, that is an absolute violation of their constitutional rights,” Roberts said.
The tort claims were filed Thursday afternoon in Spokane County Superior Court. They are seeking to start a class-action lawsuit that would reverse every fine and sentence Cooper has made for both cities, Roberts said.
Cheney City Administrator Mark Schuller said he had not yet seen notice of the legal filing when he was contacted Thursday by a reporter.
“I wasn’t the one who hired her,” Schuller said. “We think Terri does a fine job in our court commissioner duties. I wouldn’t have any comment until we learn a little bit more about what this action is.”
Cooper did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Airway Heights Municipal Court Judge Greg Tripp, who appointed Cooper to serve as a court commissioner in Cheney in 2006 and more recently in Airway Heights, declined to comment when contacted Thursday.
But earlier this year, Airway Height City Administrator Albert Tripp, who is no relation to Judge Tripp, defended the decision to appoint Cooper as a court commissioner. Albert Tripp did not immediately respond to an interview request on Thursday.
“We reviewed all of this well in advance of the actual appointment,” Albert Tripp said earlier this year. “The law has not been challenged and the law is consistent with the appointment. We are quite confident in her ability to serve and quite confident that the city is facing no legal risk for having her serve.”
Lay judges allowed, sometimes
According to state law, Washington cities must appoint an attorney to serve as municipal judge if they have a population of more than 5,000 people. The idea was that small towns could appoint lay judges if the population is too small to attract or retain attorneys.
However, the Washington Legislature gave cities a pass if the lay judge had taken and passed a qualifying examination by Jan. 1, 2003. Cooper took that test and passed it in 2002, before she was appointed to hear cases in Medical Lake.
In 2004, Judge Tripp hired Cooper in Cheney. In 2006, she was given full judicial authority to hear all cases except jury trials. Airway Heights then appointed Cooper to do the same thing about a year ago, even though the 2017 U.S. Census listed 8,166 people living there.
“I think it makes perfect sense that people would ask how someone who does not have a law degree can be on the bench,” Cooper told The Spokesman-Review in February. “Recently, Airway Heights decided to take advantage of economies of scale. It was reviewed by Airway Heights legal counsel and found to be solid.”
But Roberts has filed the tort claims to challenge that decision to allow Cooper to serve as judge.
“Our judicial system … is the most important place where there should not be any doubt that everything is being done correctly,” Roberts said. “One of the requirements for being a judicial officer is that you be a licensed and practicing lawyer. This idea that there had been some grandfathering in just flies in the face of what the statute says.”
In the tort claim, which is a necessary legal step before anyone can file a lawsuit against a government entity, Roberts also took issue with the fact that Cooper also serves as both court administrator and court commissioner in Cheney.
Cooper “is operating the budget for court administration. When she is sitting as a commissioner, she decides the amount of fines,” Roberts said. “There is an inherent conflict with the system set up that way.”
Cooper sentenced Pete on Oct. 2 on charges stemming from a domestic violence assault, according to court records. He was listed Thursday as an inmate in the Spokane County Jail.
Pete made headlines 12 years ago after he was shot by Olsen, who was off duty at the time. Olsen claimed Pete had tried to steal his truck. A jury exonerated Pete of car theft and a different jury exonerated Olsen of shooting Pete in 2009.
Pete was named in the tort claim “because he’s actually had his rights infringed upon,” Roberts said. “He represents anyone else who has been sentenced by Ms. Cooper or has had fines levied against by Ms. Cooper. We are also asking for the court to have her removed from the position as a judicial officer and that they vacate all her decisions.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.