Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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In August 2020, Petitioner Jason Waits was tried and convicted of first degree child molestation and first degree attempted child molestation. The issues for the Washington Supreme Court’s review arose from the bad acoustics of the building where the trial took place: a former church that was used to accommodate social distancing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of Waits’ two-day trial, the transcription contained over 2,000 “inaudible” notations from the judge, lawyer, jurors, and witnesses. The transcriptionist was later able to fill in some of the gaps, but about 1,500 inaudibles remained. After Waits was convicted, he was found indigent and appointed appellate counsel. Appellate counsel asked the Court of Appeals to remand Waits’ case to the trial court to attempt reconstruction of the record and to bifurcate Waits’ already-identified speedy trial claim. Appellate counsel expressed concern that because she was not Waits’ attorney at trial, she was not in a position to advise Waits on the factual accuracy of the reconstruction effort and, thus, asked that the Court of Appeals direct the trial court to make defense counsel available during reconstruction. The Court of Appeals’ commissioner denied the motion and stayed the appeal, concluding that the RAPs direct the trial court and parties in the proper mechanism to reconstruct the record. Nor did the commissioner appoint trial counsel, stating Waits could make that request to the trial court under RAP 7.2(b). Finally, the commissioner declined to bifurcate the appeal based on the notion that piecemeal appeals are disfavored. Appealing to the Supreme Court, Waits objected to the Court of Appeals’ reconstruction procedure. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. "Because criminal defendants have the constitutional right to an appeal from a record that is sufficiently complete to permit effective appellate review, when that record is deficient, missing, or incomplete, the State is responsible for reconstructing it with the assistance of the parties." The Court affirmed the appellate court's judgment with respect to the bifurcation issue. View "Washington v. Waits" on Justia Law

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Gregory and Sue Tadych filed suit after the one-year limitation period to bring a construction defect suit expired. The trial court entered summary judgment, dismissing the suit and upholding the contractual limitation. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Washington Supreme Court found the contractual limitation here was substantively unconscionable and, therefore, void and unenforceable. "The one-year limitation provision provides a substantially shorter limitations period than plaintiffs are otherwise entitled to under RCW 4.16.310 and benefits the contractor at the expense of the rights of the homeowner." Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for trial. View "Tadych v. Noble Ridge Constr., Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2012, Sabelita Hawkins pleaded guilty to felony harassment and second degree malicious mischief. In 2019, she moved to vacate those convictions under RCW 9.94A.640., which granted trial courts discretion to vacate certain felony convictions if the movant satisfies specific mandatory statutory prerequisites. In this case, the State and court agreed Hawkins met the mandatory statutory prerequisites. But the court denied the motion to vacate because of the severity of the crimes of conviction, despite undisputed evidence of Hawkins’ substantial and consistent rehabilitative actions. The Washington Supreme Court found the trial court abused its discretion: "he court must meaningfully consider evidence of mitigation and rehabilitation since the time of the crime and exercise its discretion based on its assessment of the extent of rehabilitation." Because the trial court placed singular focus on negative historical facts about the crimes and disregarded Hawkins’ uncontradicted evidence of rehabilitation and mitigation, judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further consideration of Hawkins motion. View "Washington v. Hawkins" on Justia Law

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Javier Garza was found guilty of third degree rape when he was 17 years old. Twenty-five years after his adjudication, Garza successfully petitioned for relief from registering as a sex offender. Garza then moved to vacate and seal his juvenile adjudication under RCW 13.50.260(3). The court found it had no authority to vacate juvenile adjudications under this provision and denied the motion. The Court of Appeals affirmed on different grounds, holding that because RCW 13.50.260(3) applied only to “order[s] and findings,” juvenile adjudications did not qualify because adjudications were judgments, not orders. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review was whether a juvenile adjudication could be vacated and sealed under RCW 13.50.260(3). Because the plain language of the statute grants trial courts discretion to vacate and seal both adjudications and diversions, the Supreme Court held that juvenile adjudications could be vacated and sealed under RCW 13.50.260(3). The Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for a new hearing. View "Washington v. Garza" on Justia Law

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Janelle Henderson, a Black woman, and Alicia Thompson, a white woman, were involved in a motor vehicle collision. Thompson admitted fault for the collision but made no offer to compensate Henderson for her injuries. Henderson claimed that her preexisting condition was seriously exacerbated by the collision and sued for damages. During the trial, Thompson’s defense team attacked the credibility of Henderson and her counsel—also a Black woman—in language that called on racist tropes and suggested impropriety between Henderson and her Black witnesses. The jury returned a verdict of only $9,200 for Henderson. Henderson moved for a new trial or additur on the ground that the repeated appeals to racial bias affected the verdict, yet the trial court did not even grant an evidentiary hearing on that motion. The court instead stated it could not “require attorneys to refrain from using language that is tied to the evidence in the case, even if in some contexts the language has racial overtones.” The Washington Supreme Court concluded the trial court abused its discretion by failing to grant an evidentiary hearing and also by failing to impose any sanctions for Thompson’s discovery violations. Judgment was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Henderson v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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This case presented an issue of first impression for the Washington Supreme Court relating to the business records exception to the rule against hearsay: the admissibility of a drug rehabilitation and testing center incident report under RCW 5.45.020. The child in this case, M.R., was removed from her parents’ custody shortly after birth because of her mother’s history of involvement with Child Protective Services for her two older children and the mother’s suspected ongoing substance abuse and mental health problems. In 2017, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (Department) petitioned to terminate the parental rights of M.R.’s father, D.R. Throughout the course of M.R.’s dependency, the juvenile court ordered D.R. to engage in various remedial services designed to correct his perceived parenting deficiencies. One such requirement asked D.R. to provide a urinalysis (UA) sample. D.R. went for the UA test but left without providing a sample. The clinic staff member who monitored the test submitted an incident report, which stated D.R. had been seen attempting to open a UA “device” during the test. The State moved to terminate D.R.’s parental rights, and at the time of the trial, despite several follow-up requests to comply with a UA test, D.R. failed to produce a UA sample. At trial, the incident report was admitted as a business record to show D.R. was caught attempting to use a UA device. In November 2020, D.R.’s parental rights were terminated. He appealed, arguing the judge committed prejudicial error by admitting the incident report as a business record because the observation of the UA device involved a degree of “skill of observation” akin to expert testimony and in excess of the scope of the business records exception. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court determined the judge's decision to admit the incident report met applicable legal standards, and was not manifestly unreasonable or based on untenable grounds. Therefore, the Court found no abuse of discretion and therefore affirmed. View "In re Welfare of M.R." on Justia Law

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This case concerned whether Washington Substitute Senate Bill (SSB) 5493, constituted an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority. SSB 5493 amended RCW 39.12.015 to modify how the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) industrial statistician calculated prevailing wage rates for public works projects. Associated General Contractors of Washington, Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington Inc., Inland Pacific Chapter of Associate Builders and Contractors Inc., and Inland Northwest AGC Inc. (collectively AGC), filed suit against the State of Washington and various government officials in their official capacities (collectively State), for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that requiring the industrial statistician to use the wages from CBAs constituted an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The superior court granted the State’s cross motion for summary judgment, holding that SSB 5493 was constitutional, and dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that SSB 5493 was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority, holding that the amendments have neither the standards nor adequate procedural safeguards as required by the two-part test set forth in Barry & Barry, Inc. v. Department of Motor Vehicles, 81 Wn.2d 155, 163-64, 500 P.2d 540 (1972). The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals: SSB 5493 was not an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority because it provided standards and procedural safeguards under the test in Barry & Barry. "The legislature made a policy decision to adopt the highest CBA wage rate and has directed the L&I industrial statistician to identify the highest CBA wage rate and adopt it as the prevailing wage. In addition there are procedural safeguards in related statutes and inherent in the collective bargaining process that protect against arbitrary administrative action or abuse of discretionary power." The case was remanded back to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the remaining issue not addressed because of its disposition in this case. View "Associated Gen. Contractors of Wash. v. State" on Justia Law

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As part of an effort to reduce racial bias in the judicial system, the Washington Supreme Court enacted GR 37, which directed trial judges to deny a peremptory challenge when an objective observer could view race as a factor in its use. Over GR 37 objections, two potential jurors, both people of color, were struck from the jury in this case. The jury found Tesfasilasye guilty of third degree rape. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail. Tesfasilasye appealed, alleging, among other things, that an objective observer could have viewed race as a factor for striking Juror 25 and juror 3 as prohibited by GR 37. The Supreme Court, after a review of the trial court record, determined an objective observer could view race as a factor for striking both juror 25 and juror 3. Tesfasilasye asked the Court to reverse his conviction, and the State did not dispute that the remedy for a GR 37 violation. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for a new trial. View "Washington v. Tesfasilasye" on Justia Law

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Petitioners Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), sought reversal of a Court of Appeals decision affirming the partial summary judgment rulings that an “all risk” insurance policy did not provide coverage for certain losses. At issue in WSDOT’s petition for review was whether the loss of use or functionality of the insured property constituted “physical loss” or “physical damage” that triggered coverage. STP’s petition asked whether the insurance policy excluded coverage for damage to the insured property caused by alleged design defects and whether the policy covers delay losses. This case arose out of a major construction project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. In 2011, STP contracted with WSDOT to construct a tunnel to replace the viaduct. The project started in July 2013. A tunnel boring machine (TBM) used in the project stopped working in December 2013, and did not resume until December 2015. The project was unable to continue during the two-year period while the TBM was disassembled, removed, and repaired. STP and WSDOT tendered insurance claims under the Policy. Great Lakes denied coverage, and STP and WSDOT sued the insurers, alleging wrongful denial of their claims. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, finding that even if it interpreted “direct physical loss or damage” to include loss of use, no coverage under Section 1 is triggered because the alleged loss of use was not caused by a physical condition impacting the insured property. View "Seattle Tunnel Partners v. Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) PLC" on Justia Law

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Tonelli Anderson petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review of his 61-year sentence he received for two first degree murders committed at age 17. Anderson asked the Court to find his sentence was unconstitutionally cruel under the Washington constitution, arguing that Washington v. Haag announced a bright line rule that no juvenile offender could ever receive a sentence of 46 years or longer, no matter how serious or numerous their crimes might be. The Supreme Court agreed that Haag limited the category of juvenile offenders who could receive a de facto life without parole (LWOP) sentence, but when the offender’s crimes do not reflect those “mitigating qualities of youth,” Washington’s constitution does not bar a de facto LWOP sentence. In light of the evidence presented at trial, the Supreme Court concluded the trial court appropriately determined Anderson’s crimes did not reflect “youthful immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” Therefore his sentence was affirmed. View "Washington v. Anderson" on Justia Law