The B.I.A.W. and the Coming Judicial Election

April 2, 2008
For the last several years the Building Industry Association of Washington has probably been the most powerful lobby in Washington. This was reported in November 2003 by this newspaper and it remains true today. The Seattle P.I. which seems to be keeping tabs on this group, noted Monday that B.I.A.W.’s March newsletter contains a venomous, hate-filled diatribe against ecology minded people, apparently linking them all together with eco-terrorists and a viscous attack against the governor. There is a link to newsletter in the P.I. editorial.I will write quite a bit about this later but for now I want to call attention to a couple of things that I will later describe more fully. The B.I.A.W is extremely political and closely, but not directly, aligned with the Republican Party. For example the number one agenda item for B.I.A.W. this year is the election of Dino Rossi. The second most important item is the judicial election of three State Supreme Court members. The B.I.A.W. is looking particularly closely at the seat occupied by Justice Mary Fairhurst. It said that the two issues that it is considering in connection with this election are property rights and public disclosure.Public disclosure? I had been unaware of any interest by B.I.A.W. in public disclosure law. The B.I.A.W was hugely involved with the legislature and public disclosure law was nowhere on its list of topics. It did not publicly advocate for to the legislature for changes in the public disclosure law, where ordinarily these changes would be made. After thinking about this a while, I have a theory: to some degree this “issue” might be staged.In late December last year the Court published an opinion called Soter v. Cowles Publishing Company. The case received publicity, particularly on the East side of the state. It involved the routine matter of interpreting the Public Disclosure Act and the scope of a well recognized legal privilege. The case was brought by the Spokane-Review to try to force a school district to divulge privileged papers relating to a wrongful death lawsuit that had been settled. The Court’s holding said in essence that if newspapers wanted this right they would have to go to the legislature to get the law changed, an apparently conservative holding.

Charles Johnson is a highly respected jurist, generally regarded as one of the conservative justices on the Court and he is running for re-election as well. He wrote a strident sounding dissent in Soter and according to the Olympian actually issued a press release about his dissent at the time that he announced that he was running for reelection. (Justice Fairhurst voted with the majority in the opinion and appears not to have issued a press release.)

Justice Charles Johnson is likely to be supported by the B.I.A.W. because of his conservatism. Justice Fairhurst is likely to be targeted. She wrote the dissent in Anderson v. King County, arguing that it was unconstitutional to withhold the right to marriage from gays. As you recall this was a 5 to 4 decision with Justice Johnson voting with the narrow majority.

I do not see how the interpretation of the public disclosure law is a legitimate judicial campaign issue, as the law was made by the legislature, but if the B.I.A.W. pursues this, it does serve a number of interests. Putting aside the oddity of conservatives arguing that the courts ought to be expanding the scope of legislation, this would put them on the side of the media, a highly desired ally. While I am not aware of any doctrinal chasm between Justices Fairhurst and Johnson on this matter of legislative interpretation, the Soter case could be spun to make them appear to be on opposite sides of an important issue, so the B.I.A.W. could at once bolster Justice Johnson’s candidacy while attacking Justice Fairhurst. This sounds like it might be a politically adept move, but I still need to find out how this issue is anything but a red herring, mere manipulation to try to get a political result. If the B.I.A.W pursues this, I guess I will find out.

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Result-Oriented Judicial Decisions

January 31, 2008

Contracts are certainly not inviolate, as there are numerous legal doctrines to set them aside, reform them, even add terms to them. The general idea is to effectuate the intention of the parties as discerned by a judge or appellate court. There are numerous judicial tools to discern the parties intent, often leading to conflicting results. Ultimately though once a contract is in the court system its interpretation is left to an individual or individuals who probably have no experience and limited understanding of the area of commerce from which the contract arose.

When the contract materially departs from the agreement of the parties or the contract turns out to involve performance beyond the expectations of the parties, the court will sometimes say that there has been a “mutual mistake of fact.” This can lead to the court rescinding the contract, or reforming it to comport with the actual understanding of the parties, and sometimes awarding damages and attorneys fees.

This situation occurs throughout the law, in almost every conceivable context. People want to get out of adoption agreements, supply contracts, debts of all kinds, personal service agreements, you name it. For the sake of predictability it is quite important that you be able to determine whether a contract will be canceled or reformed or enforced. Because of the sweeping nature of the situations into which these doctrines are applied, they are defined with a broad brush and often it is impossible to anticipate what a court will do with them.

Today the Washington State Supreme Court issued a decision involving an agreement sought to be set aside. Its treatment of the notion of “mutual mistake of fact” is of interest, although I’m not sure that it goes very far in making things any more predictable.

In State v. John Shannon Codiga, a criminal defendant entered into a plea agreement, pleading guilty to three counts of a crime involving a sentence of seven years. At the sentencing hearing the defendant learned that actually the sentence was life, or could be that. The defendant not surprisingly felt that this ought to invalidate the agreement so that he could go to trial. The prosecutor explained when his office prepared a statement of the defendant’s criminal history it omitted a marijuana-related felony conviction because by its terms it was to be expunged if the defendant stayed out of trouble and it had failed to identify one or more misdemeanors that had occurred to prevent the felony from being extinguished. The prosecutor pointed out that the defendant signed off on this mistaken statement of criminal history but the defendant contended that he too had thought that the felony had been expunged. As it turned out this was a pretty big fact to be mistaken about, as the existence or nonexistence of this conviction .

The Washington Supreme Court has been criticized for deciding what result it wanted then rendering the law in a manner to justify the result. Mutual mistake is a doctrine that applies when there has been a mistake about a material fact but it classically does not apply when the parties have been mistaken about their understanding their rights. This is now a little murky. For example in In Re M.D. it was found that a mistake about the person’s rights before entering into a contract could invalidate the agreement. This decision seemed to gloss over the distinction between law and facts and skip lightly over the idea that the mistake should be mutual.

In todays decision, the State Supreme Court upheld the plea agreement, saying in effect that the defendant had waived the right to claim mutual mistake of fact in the standard printed language of the agreement in which he assumed the risk of a mutual mistake of fact. The court then went on to emphasize that this was a mutual mistake of fact, not of law, as if the doctrine applied only to mistakes of law. This is vertigo inducing language to the average lawyer. The readers’ disorientation is heightened when s/he realizes that an acknowledged mutual mistake of fact is being used by the Court to sustain a contract, not avoid it. This was a unanimous decision!

If we pull ourselves back from behind the looking glass, there is a trend in the law to permit contracting parties to allocate the risk of mistake. Generally speaking this should be bargained for and to be enforceable it should be reasonably clear about what mistakes are being allocated and not a sweeping statement that allocates all mistakes, including those of the party that drafted the agreement with superior bargaining position, to the party presented with the agreement. The court did not analyze the plea bargaining agreement in light of this emerging area of law, it just pointed to the language of the agreement, as if that were the sole determining factor.

It might help in your effort to fit these decisions into a conceptual framework to know that In re M.D. where the doctrine of mutual mistake was contorted to avoid a contract involved a Native American mother trying to reclaim her parental rights which had been contracted away. Today’s decision involved a person arrested for the first time for child molestation. In these two decisions the doctrine was used to affirm parental rights over contractual rights and to incarcerate for life, or most of it anyway, a person who confessed to three acts of child molestation. Another factor that may have come into play is that three State Supreme Court seats are up for re-election this fall.

In these decisions most people would not take issue with the outcome and many would not take issue with the reasoning that obtained the results. Later we will look at decisions that involve other interests. If you go along with this approach in these cases, no fair complaining if a result you don’t like is arrived at through unconventional reasoning.


Reform Washington’s Judicial Appointment Process

January 2, 2008

debra-stevens.jpgJudge Debra Stephens, Washington’s Newest Supreme Court Justice already has a website for her election this fall

While I know little about the newest Washington State Supreme Court Justice, Debra Stephens, I do take issue with the process by which she was appointed to the state’s highest court. Little is known about her except that the people quoted in the print media uniformly praise her scholarship and ability. The qualities are certainly essential for any appointment, but there was a certain amount of disinformation circulated from the governor’s office. We were told that she had argued before the State Supreme Court over one hundred times, but a Westlaw search shows only 56 appearances, never on behalf of a litigant but always (except once) filing a brief as a “friend of the court” on behalf of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association (again, except once). As a “friend of the court” filing an amicus brief, more often than not in the normal course of events she would either not have argued at all or argued only a few minutes as the litigants (the parties directly involved in the case) have a relatively short period of time to present their cases.

She was praised for the diversity of views she encountered as an appellate judge , but she had only just been appointed there and had not participated in one opinion (again according to Westlaw). The governor’s office took some license in promoting her qualifications, which of course does not reflect on her but calls attention to problems with the process.

Justice Bobbi Bridge retired in the time-honored fashion by departing the bench a year before the election, so that the governor could appoint her successor, who could then run as the incumbent in the 2008 election. The strong tendency to reelect an incumbent justice gives the appointing governor great influence on make-up of the supreme court bench. This has made one of the State’s most vital and sensitive offices the subject of political patronage and in the past has diminished the stature and potential of the Court.

Washington needs to seriously examine this appointment process and consider alternatives adopted by other states, such as Arizona. That state has a blue ribbon panel which creates a short list of qualified candidates from which the governor must select her appointee.