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AGO 1994 No. 15 - September 19, 1994
AGO Opinion Header Image
Christine Gregoire | 1993-2004 | Attorney General of Washington

COURTS-SUPERIOR COURTS-FILING FEES-PUBLIC FUNDS-STATE TREASURER-COUNTY TREASURER-LAW LIBRARIES-Procedures for dividing filing fees received on superior court cases between the state and county treasuries, and calculating the amount due to the county law library fund

1.         Current law requires county treasurers to remit to the state treasurer 46 percent of all superior court filing fees covered by RCW 36.18.020 before calculating any amounts due to the county or regional law library fund.

2.         After remitting the state's share of superior court filing fees to the state treasurer, county treasurers are required by RCW 27.24.070 to deposit an amount in the county or regional law library fund equal to $12 times the number of civil or probate fees paid in connection with the filing of a new matter.

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                                                              September 19, 1994

HonorableJohn W. Ladenburg
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney
955 Tacoma Avenue South, Suite 301                                                 
Tacoma, WA  98402-2160                             

                                                                                                            Cite as:  AGO 1994 No. 15

Dear Mr. Ladenburg:

            By letter previously acknowledged, you requested an opinion on two questions we have paraphrased as follows:

            1.         What is the proper method for apportioning superior court filing fees among the state treasurer, the county treasurer, and the county or regional law library fund?

            2.         Which superior court filing fees are subject to law library allocation?

                                                              BRIEF ANSWERS

            1.         The proper method for apportioning superior court filing fees among the state treasurer, the county treasurer, and the law library fund is as follows:  The clerk of each superior court collects filing fees and transmits the entire amount to the county treasurer.  Each month, the county treasurer transmits to the state treasurer 46 percent of monies received from all filing fees specified in RCW 36.18.020.  RCW 36.18.025.  From the remaining 54 percent retained by the county, the county treasurer deposits, in the county or regional law library fund, $12 for each new civil or probate filing fee, including appeals.  In other words, the commencement of 100 new civil or probate actions would require payment of $1,200 into the law library fund.

            2.         The superior court filing fees subject to law library allocation are those paid upon commencement of a probate or civil action in superior court.

                                                                              ANALYSIS

            Introduction

            The questions posed must be resolved with reference to the statutes that require distribution of monies to the state treasurer (RCW 36.18.025), and to the regional or county law library fund (RCW 27.24.070).  We will first look to these statutes to determine the method of fees distribution contemplated by the Legislature.  We will then characterize, in general terms, those filing fees which require a law library fund distribution, and those that must be shared with the state.  Finally, we will apply the filing fee distribution scheme to specific filing fees.

            Division of Receipts Between County Treasurer and State Treasurer

            RCW 36.18.025 and 27.24.070 together create a legislative scheme that apportions filing fee revenues between the county treasurer, the state treasurer, and the county or regional law library fund.  We first address RCW 36.18.025, which states:

                        Forty-six percent of the money received from filing fees paid pursuant to RCW 36.18.020 shall be transmitted by the county treasurer each month to the state treasurer for deposit in the public safety and education account established under RCW 43.08.250.

            To ascertain legislative intent, the analysis must begin with the plain language of the statute.  State v. Reding, 119 Wn.2d 685, 690, 835 P.2d 1019 (1992).  RCW 36.18.025 unambiguously provides that the county treasurer "shall" transmit to the state treasurer 46 percent of monies received from filing fees paid pursuant to RCW 36.18.020.  If a statute is not ambiguous, there is no need for interpretation.  State v. Standifer, 110 Wn.2d 90, 92, 750 P.2d 258 (1988).  Forty-six percent of the filing fees must be remitted to the state treasurer and, by implication, 54 percent will be retained by the county treasurer.

            We note at this point that the county/state split required by RCW 36.18.025 applies only to "filing fees paid pursuant to RCW 36.18.020".  The wording of this provision makes RCW 36.18.025 a "reference" statute:

            Reference statutes are those which refer to, and by reference adopt wholly or partially, preexisting statutes or which refer to other statutes and make them applicable to an existing subject of legislation. . . . The precepts and terms to which reference is made are to be considered and treated as if they were incorporated into and made a part of the referring act, just as completely as if they had been explicitly written therein.

Knowles v. Holly, 82 Wn.2d 694, 700-01, 513 P.2d 18 (1973) (citations omitted).

            By referencing RCW 36.18.020, the Legislature incorporated into RCW 36.18.025 the listing of clerks' fees contained therein to define the fees subject to state distribution.[1]  The maximexpressio unius est exclusio alterius also applies—that is, where the referred-to statute includes a listing of items, an inference arises that items omitted from the statute were intentionally omitted by the Legislature.  Knowles, 82 Wn.2d at 701, n.1.  We conclude that where a filing fee is set out in a statute other than RCW 36.18.020, a distribution to the state treasurer is not required by RCW 36.18.025.

            Calculation of Distributions to the Regional or County Law Library System

            The second major component of the distribution scheme is RCW 27.24.070, which requires contribution to the regional or county law library system, and states:

                        In each county pursuant to this chapter, the county treasurer shall deposit in the county or regional law library fund a sum equal to twelve dollars for every new probate or civil filing fee, including appeals, collected by the clerk of the superior court and six dollars for every fee collected for the commencement of a civil action in district court for the support of the law library in that county or the regional law library to which the county belongs:  PROVIDED, That upon a showing of need the twelve dollar contribution may be increased up to fifteen dollars upon the request of the law library board of trustees and with the approval of the county legislative body or bodies.

            This statute unambiguously assigns to the treasurer of each county the responsibility for depositing monies into the law library fund.  Unless a higher amount has been approved by the county, the amount to be deposited is "a sum equal to twelve dollars for every new probate or civil filing fee, including appeals, collected by the clerk of the superior court".  RCW 27.24.070.  The amount assessed is unambiguous and, as such, is not open to interpretation.  The county treasurer must pay the amount imposed by statute, currently $12.[2]

            Since RCW 27.24.070 specifies that "the county treasurer shall deposit in the county or regional law library fund a sum equal to twelve dollars for every new probate or civil filing fee", we conclude that the Legislature was providing a method for calculating the total amount to be remitted to the law library fund, rather than specifically providing for a breakdown of any particular filing fee.  It is of no consequence that a particular filing fee may be less than $12. The statute indicates that the total amount remitted to the law library fund should be calculated by multiplying the number of filings by $12.

            This point is clearer if we examine the statutory history of the language in question.  Prior to amendments in 1984, RCW 27.24.070 provided, in relevant part:

                        In each county pursuant to this chapter, the clerk of the superior court shall pay from each fee collected for the filing in his office of every new probate or civil matter, including appeals, the sum of seven dollars for the support of the law library in that county or the regional law library to which the county belongs, which shall be paid to the county treasurer to be credited to the county or regional law library fund[.]

Laws of 1979, ch.126, § 1, p. 481.

            The changes made in 1984 are significant.  As amended, the statute directs the county treasurer to deposit in the county or regional law library fund "a sum equal to seven dollars[[3]]for every new probate or civil matter, including appeals", eliminating language that required the clerk to set aside an amount "from each fee collected".  Laws of 1984, ch. 258, § 310, p. 1352.

            These 1984 amendments persuasively show that the Legislature no longer intended that the law library fee be taken from each fee to which the statute applied.  Rather, the amendments demonstrate the intent that the county treasurer pay into the law library fundfor each applicable filing fee.  Based on the statutory language and legislative history, the correct interpretation is requiring a $12 payment for, notfrom, each filing fee.

            Next, we seek a general characterization of the superior court filing fees that trigger a $12 payment to the law library fund.  Under RCW 27.24.070, the county treasurer must deposit in the law library fund a sum equal to $12 for "every new probate or civil filing fee, including appeals, collected by the clerk of the superior court".  It is clear that the filing fee paid to initiate an appeal in superior court falls within the statute, but to determine the full scope of fees that require a $12 law library fund deposit, we must discern legislative intent from the phrase "every new probate or civil filing fee".

            These terms are not defined by statute.  Where no statutory definition is provided, a term is given its plain and ordinary meaning.  Shoreline Comm'ty College v. Employment Sec. Dept., 120 Wn.2d 394, 403, 842 P.2d 938 (1992).  Principles of statutory construction require that effect be given to all of the language used.  In re Marriage of Timmons, 94 Wn.2d 594, 600, 617 P.2d 1032 (1980).

            To find the ordinary meaning of words, it is appropriate to resort to dictionary definitions.  SeeNational Fed'n of Retired Persons v. Insurance Comm'r, 120 Wn.2d 101, 112, 838 P.2d 680 (1992).  "Every" is defined as "each, individually and separately; each, and including all".  Webster's New World Dictionary 485 (2d ed. 1984).  "New" means "never existing before; appearing, thought of, developed, made, produced, etc. for the first time".  Webster's New World Dictionary 957 (2d ed. 1984).  "Probate" refers to "all matters and proceedings pertaining to administration of estates, guardianships, etc."  Black's Law Dictionary 1081 (5th ed. 1979).  "Civil" relates to "private rights and remedies sought by civil actions as contrasted with criminal proceedings".  Black's Law Dictionary 222 (5th ed. 1979).

            Of the above-defined terms, the word "new" is most significant, as it modifies the phrase "probate or civil filing fees", and limits the class of filing fees that trigger payment of a law library fund contribution.  Assessments are not made foreach civil and probate filing fee.  Rather, the statute applies only to each civil or probate filing fee that is "new".  While it might be argued that each filing fee paid is "new", having never been paid previously, this is an absurd interpretation.  "Statutes will not be interpreted in a manner which leads to absurd results."  State v. Smith, 65 Wn. App. 887, 892, 830 P.2d 379 (1992).  Moreover, this interpretation would render meaningless the word "every".  The reasonable conclusion is that the word "new" was intended to limit the class of filing fees to those probate or civil filing fees that commence a new action in superior court.  See CR 3 (commencement of actions); CR 4.1 (process).  The "new" fees are distinguished from those which are payable at later stages of a case that has already been commenced, and those that are unrelated to the commencement of a superior court action.

            To properly apply the legislative scheme, we must also determine whether the distribution to the law library fund should be made after the filing fees split required by RCW 36.18.025, or should instead come from the pool of filing fees collected "for every new probate or civil filing fee" (RCW 27.24.070) prior to the county/state fees split.  We began our analysis with the language of RCW 36.18.025, and the Legislature's use of the phrase "of the money received from filing fees paid" to describe the pool of fees subject to state allocation.  The wording indicates that the Legislature intended that the county/state split take place prior to withdrawal of the law library fund contribution.

            This interpretation is supported by the legislative history.  In 1992, the Legislature passed chapter 54, Laws of 1992, which amended those statutes at issue here.  RCW 36.18.020 was amended to increase certain superior court filing fees.  Laws of 1992, ch. 54, § 1, p. 183.   Amendments to RCW 36.18.025 changed the county/state split to 54/46.  Laws of 1992, ch. 54, § 2, p. 185. The law library fund assessment was raised from $7 to $12 for superior court filing fees.  Laws of 1992, ch. 54, § 6, p. 187.

            The background of this enactment is set out in a final legislative report (Second Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1378).  The report includes the following description: "From the local portion of filing fees, a county treasurer deposits certain amounts into a county or regional law library fund."  Final Legislative Report, 52nd Legislature (1992), at 4.  Based on the statutory language, as well as legislative history, we conclude that each county treasurer must first transmit 46 percent of filing fees collected pursuant to RCW 36.18.020 by the superior court clerk, and then pay the law library assessment from the remaining 54 percent.

            In summary, all filing fees that are derived from RCW 36.18.020 are subject to the county/state fee split.  A law library fund contribution is required for each superior court filing that commences a civil or probate action in superior court, including appeals.  The scope of filing fees that meet this definition are not necessarily limited to those listed in RCW 36.18.020.  In Appendix A, we discuss the specific filing fees that we are aware of indicating our opinion as to which filing fees are subject to the county/state split and/or the law library fund assessment.

            Finally, we address the confusion that has arisen regarding the law library contribution and the smaller filing fees.  These are referred to in your letter as "non-standard filing fees".  As explained above, the Legislature did not intend that each filing fee be individually apportioned.  The amount of each filing fee is irrelevant, since each applicable filing fee is merely counted and then multiplied by $12.  Since the vast majority of initial filing fees are those requiring a $110 fee, the county portion of filing fees collected should more than adequately cover the $12-per-filing law library assessments.  See Final Legislative Report, 52nd Legislature (1992), at 4, Second Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1378; Fiscal Note Request OAC92-93 (breakdown of filing fees by category) (attached as Appendix B).

            We trust this opinion will be of assistance to you.

                                                                        Very truly yours,

                                                                        CHRISTINE O. GREGOIRE
                                                                        Attorney General

                                                                        LORETTA A. VOSK
                                                                        Assistant Attorney General

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    [1]The specific fees covered by RCW 36.18.020 are listed in Appendix A to this opinion.

    [2]Because the case filing fees vary in amount, we are aware of suggestions that it would be easier to calculate the amounts paid into the law library fund based on a percentage of each filing fee collected.  Although this procedure might be administratively easier, it is unwarranted by the clear language of the statute, which requires a flat calculation of $12 multiplied by the number of filings.

    [3]The amount was increased to $12 in 1992.  Laws of 1992, ch. 54, § 6, p. 187.

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