Disqualifying Judges: Expanding Washington Law

Disqualifying Judges: Expanding Washington Law

Disqualifying one judge from a case in Washington is a fundamental right. No reasoning is needed. However, a judge may only be disqualified before the judge has made a discretionary ruling or order in the case. The RCW provided (now expanded) slim examples of actions by a judge which are not discretionary ruling or order. In Godfrey v. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Ltd., 453 P.3d 992 (2019), the Washington Supreme Court analyzes the few examples and adds another for clarification.

Godfrey was a bartender who handled wine bottles. On this occasion, the wine bottle he was handling shattered in his hand. He filed suit for against the winery, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Ltd. and the bottle manufacturer, Saint-Gobain Containers Inc.

The case was assigned to Judge Johnson, who set the initial case schedule and discovery cutoff deadlines. The case was later assigned to Judge Stolz. Judge Stolz was presented a stipulated and jointly proposed order extending the parties’ deadlines to disclose witnesses. Judge Stola ruled on and entered the order. Two months later, prior to any other rulings, Godfrey filed an affidavit of prejudice and a motion for Judge Stolz’s recusal. Judge Stolz denied the motion. Judge Stolz subsequently presided over the bench trial.

Godfrey appealed the ruling at trial, arguing the trial court erred in rejecting his affidavit of prejudice and motion for recusal. The Court of Appeals agreed with Godfrey and held the trial court erred in rejecting the affidavit of prejudice.

The defendants petitioned for review. The petition was stayed pending a decision on point with the subject matter, which ultimately had this case remanded back to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appels reached the same conclusion as it did previously.

The Washington Supreme Court then granted review on whether an affidavit of prejudice was timely under then Washington law when it was submitted after entry of a stipulated order extending discovery deadlines.

Judicial acts which had been carved out as acceptable prior to an affidavit of prejudice include: arranging the calendar, setting a date for a hearing or trial, issuing an arrest warrant, presiding over criminal preliminary proceedings under CrR 3.2.1, arraigning the accused, fixing bail, and presiding over juvenile detention and release hearings under JuCR 7.3 and 7.4.

The Washington Supreme Court previously held an order granting a joint trial continuance motion was discretionary because the decision to grant or deny such a request required the judge to ‘”consider various factors, such as diligence, materiality, due process, a need for orderly procedure, and the possible impact of the result on trial.” Defendants urged the Court to follow this reasoning.

However, the Court held rulings on pretrial stipulated orders relating to scheduling and deadlines fall within the exception for “the arrangement of the calendar,” making the above analysis moot. Therefore, the entry of the stipulated order did not render Godfrey’s affidavit of prejudice untimely.

The Court’s holding compelled a change in the wording of RCW 4.12.050 to include “ruling on an agreed continuance” as permissible prior to the filing of an affidavit of prejudice. Thus, parties now have greater latitude and, potentially, time in making a proper decision of whether or not to disqualify a judge from the proceedings. Whether this is favorable or not will depend on the subjective desires of each respective party. Proper case analysis and strategy are imperative to keeping the law on your side.

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