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AGO 1965 No. 23 - June 14, 1965
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington


COURTS ‑- JUSTICE COURTS NOT OPERATING UNDER 1961 JUSTICE COURT ACT ‑- PART-TIME JUSTICE OF THE PEACE ‑- MONETARY JURISDICTION.

The limit on the monetary jurisdiction of a part-time justice of the peace under chapter 96, Laws of 1965, is $500.00, irrespective of whether or not the particular justice of the peace is required by law to be a licensed attorney.

                                                              - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                   June 14, 1965

Honorable Robert E. Schillberg
Prosecuting Attorney
Snohomish County
Everett, Washington

                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 65-66 No. 23

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you have made reference to chapter 96, Laws of 1965, which became effective June 10, 1965.  With reference to this enactment, you have requested an opinion of this office relative to the limitation on monetary jurisdiction of a part-time justice of the peace (in a justice court not operating under the provisions of chapter 299, Laws of 1961) who is an attorney.

            In our opinion the limit on monetary jurisdiction of a part-time justice of the peace under chapter 96, Laws of 1965, is $500.00, irrespective of whether or not the particular justice of the peace is required by law to be a licensed attorney.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            For a complete understanding of the basis for your question, it is necessary to set forth in full the provisions of § 1, chapter 96, Laws of 1965.  This enactment reads as follows:

            "Every justice of the peace required by law to be a licensed attorney of this state and required by law to devote his full time to the office shall have jurisdiction and cognizance of the following civil actions and proceedings:

            "(1) Of an action arising on contract for  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]the recovery of money only in which the sum claimed is less than one thousand dollars;

            "(2) Of an action for damages for injuries to the person, or for taking or detaining personal property, or for injuring personal property, or for an injury to real property when no issue raised by the answer involves the plaintiff's title to or possession of the same, when the amount of damages claimed is less than one thousand dollars; also of actions to recover the possession of personal property, when the value of such property, as alleged in the complaint, is less than one thousand dollars;

            "(3) Of an action for a penalty less than one thousand dollars;

            (4) Of an action upon a bond conditioned for the payment of money, when the amount claimed is less than one thousand dollars, though the penalty of the bond exceeds that sum, the judgment to be given for the sum actually due, not exceeding the amount claimed in the complaint;

            "(5) Of an action on an undertaking or surety bond taken by him or his predecessor in office, when the amount claimed is less than one thousand dollars;

            "(6) Of an action for damages for fraud in the sale, purchase, or exchange of personal property, when the damages claimed are less than one thousand dollars;

            "(7) To take and enter judgment on confession of a defendant, when the amount of the judgment confessed is less than one thousand dollars;

            "(8) To issue writs of attachment upon goods, chattels, moneys, and effects, when the amount is less than one thousand dollars;

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            "(9) Of all other actions and proceedings of which jurisdiction is specially conferred by statute, when the amount involved is less than one thousand dollars, and the title to, or right of possession of, or to a lien upon, real property is not involved.

            "Every justice of the peacenot required by law to be a licensed attorney of this state and not required by law to devote his full time to his office shall have jurisdiction and cognizance of the following civil actions and proceedings:

            "(1) Of an action arising on contract for the recovery of money only in which the sum claimed is less than ((three)) five hundred dollars;

            "(2) Of an action for damages for injuries to the person, or for taking or detaining personal property, or for injuring personal property, or for an injury to real property when no issue raised by the answer involves the plaintiff's title to or possession of the same, when the amount of damages claimed is less than ((three)) five hundred dollars; also of actions to recover the possession of personal property, when the value of such property, as alleged in the complaint, is less then ((three)) five hundred dollars;

            "(3) Of an action for a penalty less than ((three)) five hundred dollars;

            "(4) Of an action upon a bond conditioned for the payment of money, when the amount claimed is less than ((three)) five hundred dollars, though the penalty of the bond exceeds that sum, the judgment to be given for the sum actually due, not exceeding the amount claimed in the complaint;

            "(5) Of an action on an undertaking or surety bond taken by him or his predecessor in office, when the amount claimed is less than ((three)) five hundred dollars;

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            "(6) Of an action for damages for fraud in the sale, purchase, or exchange of personal property, when the damages claimed are less than ((three))five hundred dollars;

            "(7) To take and enter judgment on confession of a defendant, when the amount of the judgment confessed is less than ((three)) five hundred dollars;

            "(8) To issue writs of attachment upon goods, chattels, moneys, and effects, when the amount is less than ((three)) five hundred dollars;

            "(9) Of all other actions and proceedings of which jurisdiction is specially conferred by statute, when the amount involved is less than ((three))five hundred dollars, and the title to, or right of possession of, or to a lien upon, real property is not involved."

            Clearly, the first portion of this section, establishing a limit on monetary jurisdiction of $1,000.00 for certain justices of the peace, has application only to a justice of the peace meeting both of the following requirements:

            (1) That he be required by law to be a licensed attorney of this state; and

            (2) that he be required by law to devote full time to the office of justice of the peace.

            On the other hand, the second portion of § 1, chapter 96, Laws of 1965,supra, establishing a monetary limit of $500.00 in regard to certain other justices of the peace, is expressly stated to apply only to justices of the peace who are neither required by law to be licensed attorneys nor required by law to devote full time to the office of justice of the peace.  However, to read this exclusionary language of the second portion of the statute literally, without interpretation, would, as you point out in your letter, create a vacuum as to the part-time justice of the peace who is an attorney.

            Our court has upon several occasions recognized that where adherence to the strict letter of a statute would lead to  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] absurd or incongruous results or where it is plain from the entire context and evident purpose of the statute that the language used on a particular matter does not express the legislative intent thereon, a departure from the statute's literal wording is proper.  See,In re Sherwood's Estate, 122 Wash. 648, 211 Pac. 734 (1922); also,Groves v. Meyers, 35 Wn. 2nd 403, 213 P.2d 483 (1950), andFeatherstone v. Dessert, 173 Wash. 264, 22 P.2d 1050 (1933).  We believe this approach is clearly appropriate in the instant case.

            Accordingly, as we view it, the language in question should not be read literally but rather should be read simply to mean that every justice of the peace who does not meet either of the requirements for monetary jurisdiction up to $1,000.00, under the first part of § 1, chapter 96, Laws of 1965,supra, is to be regarded as being covered by the second part of the section; i.e., limiting monetary jurisdiction to $500.00.

            Only by thus reading the statute can the vacuum you have noted be eliminated, for it is evident that the attorney-justice of the peace who only serves part time cannot by any reasoning process be said to have the higher ($1,000.00) monetary limitation jurisdiction granted exclusively to full-time attorney-justices of the peace by the first portion of the statute.

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Attorney General

PHILIP H. AUSTIN
Assistant Attorney General

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