Trained lawyers make court rulings, right? That hasn't been the case, however, in Cheney and Airway Heights

This year, two small cities in Spokane County have found themselves defending themselves over an interesting question for the court system: Can someone who never went to law school make city-level court decisions in anything but the smallest of communities?

In a case against Airway Heights and Cheney, multiple plaintiffs who've had their cases heard by a non-lawyer municipal court commissioner argue that unless a city has fewer than 5,000 people, anyone making those decisions needs to be an attorney to get that job. State law only allows non-lawyers to become judges in towns under that threshold, and the plaintiffs argue that same requirement applies to the commissioners those judges may appoint, too.

click to enlarge Trained lawyers make court rulings, right? That hasn't been the case, however, in Cheney and Airway Heights
Terri Cooper

If the plaintiffs prevail, the case could call into question potentially thousands of cases that have been heard by municipal court commissioner Terri Cooper, who's worked for the Airway Heights court since late 2018, and Cheney's court since 2004. If that happened, anyone who wrongfully spent a day in jail or paid fines could be entitled to refunds and/or damages.

But both cities have argued that state law's small-town requirement doesn't apply to municipal court commissioners, even as it is an eligibility requirement for non-lawyers to hear cases in other instances.

In a good early sign for the cities, they were awarded summary judgment in Spokane Superior Court this summer, meaning the court didn't take the case to a full trial before deciding in their favor.

The Washington Supreme Court declined to take the case on Nov. 4, so instead, the plaintiffs will go before the Court of Appeals. There, they will make their case that their right to due process was infringed upon by the cities' negligence or deliberate indifference in hiring a non-lawyer for a job they argue can't be held by someone not admitted to practice law.

"This is a lady who seems genuinely liked by people, seems generally capable of doing this job, and she's done it without issues, except that it's against the law," says Chad Freebourn, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs Shonto Pete and Monie Tulee. He believes there's room for others to join the suit, as many cases would be affected if the cities are in the wrong. "She has no law degree, she is not a licensed lawyer, she can't practice law in Washington, she couldn't even go to court to appear and represent anybody, and yet she's the judge."

Freebourn says the number of clients whose cases could be affected is vast, even though Cooper can't oversee criminal trials or civil jury trials. She can oversee things like sentencing defendants to jail if they have a plea deal, can issue fines, and can handle other matters before the court.

"No lawyer who appears before a person with black robes on thinks to ask, 'Does this person even have the authority to bind my client?'" Freebourn says. "That's absurd, but it's an objection every single one of these attorneys should have made."

The main disagreement isn't over Cooper's credentials. She and the cities all agreed in court that she hadn't been to law school, but had instead passed a qualifying exam in late 2002 that enabled her to apply for municipal court commissioner jobs.

The state constitution says no one can be a supreme court or superior court judge unless they're admitted to practice law — i.e., they're an attorney.

The Legislature only allows for non-lawyers to fill municipal and district court judge and commissioner positions if they passed that test before Jan. 1, 2003, so Cooper would have barely met the cutoff, but it's agreed she did meet it. With that requirement in place, non-lawyer judges and commissioners will eventually be phased out over time.

The other element of that requirement, however, is that those qualifying lay people can only serve as district or municipal court judges for small cities under 5,000 people. The thinking was that it's hard to find enough lawyers in rural communities to fill those jobs.

But the laws that spell out eligibility to be a district or municipal court commissioner — who are appointed by the judges they serve under and have similar authority — simply say applicants need to be an attorney or someone who passed the same qualifying examination for lay judges found under RCW 3.34.060.

That's the law that spells out the eligibility for district court judges, who, as stated above, need to be a lawyer or, "In those districts having a population of less than five thousand persons, a person who has taken and passed by January 1, 2003, the qualifying examination for a lay candidate for judicial officer as provided by rule of the supreme court."

Airway Heights and Cheney both argued in their requests for summary judgment that if lawmakers meant for the population limit to apply to municipal court commissioners, they would have explicitly stated so as they did with the judges, instead of just referencing the exam.

"The fact that the Legislature included the same population limit in the statutes for district court judges (RCW 3.34.060(2)) and municipal court judges (RCW 3.50.040) but not municipal court commissioners (RCW 3.50.075(3)) should be read as a deliberate omission by the Legislature," the lawyers for Airway Heights argued, citing another Washington court case for precedent.

But Freebourn argues that when one part of the law references another part, you need to read both parts together fully to understand the requirements. Therefore, you can't ignore the population limit in that referenced RCW.

"If you read it how the cities want you to read that statute, it would just say the person has to take a test," Freebourn says. "What they asked the court to do was render the entire first part of a sentence obsolete."

The cities were pleased with the summary judgment issued in their favor by Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno on July 2.

"The city of Airway Heights believes that the trial court's ruling was correct in dismissing the plaintiff's lawsuit and is optimistic that the court of appeals will uphold that decision," says Casey Bruner, one of the multiple teams of attorneys representing the cities, in a statement. He declined to comment further on the record.

Attorney Christopher Kerley, who is representing Cheney, says the city also agrees with that statement and likewise, declined to comment further on the record.

The summary judgment at the superior court level could alternatively be interpreted as saving everyone time and money rather than going through a full trial that could last years only to be appealed later, Freebourn says.

The plaintiffs now need to file their opening brief with the Court of Appeals Division III by Dec. 14, he says.

"The city of Airway Heights believes that the trial court's ruling was correct in dismissing the plaintiff's lawsuit..."

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Their legal team maintains there's a case to be made that non-lawyer commissioners are only allowed in those smaller cities, and that neither Cheney nor Airway Heights were that small at any time during Cooper's tenure. Cheney had more than 8,800 people as of the 2000 census, and was estimated at more than 12,400 in 2019; Airway Heights had more than 6,100 people as of the 2010 census and was estimated to have more than 9,500 by 2019.

"According to [the defendants], if you're in Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma, anywhere, you don't have to be a lawyer in any of those places as long as you're a municipal court commissioner," Freebourn says. "Even though, if you're any other type of judge or commissioner you do."

But under what they argue is a clear reading of the law, knowingly hiring a non-lawyer commissioner in a city with 5,000-plus people is illegal.

"This is what it comes down to: If the government is not following the law, how can it expect any of its citizens to follow the law?" Freebourn says. "Defendants have rights." ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...