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AGO 1992 No. 15 - July 16, 1992
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Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

CITIES AND TOWNS--COUNTIES--COURTS--JUDGES--Establishment of Municipal Courts and Termination of a Municipal Department of the District Court

1.  RCW 3.46.150 provides that a city may give notice to the county legislative authority to require termination of a municipal department of the district court.  The municipal department is terminated through amendment to the county's district court districting plan.

2.  District court judge who had been serving in a municipal department of the district court remains a district court judge following termination of the municipal department until he or she vacates the position prior to the end of his or her term, or the term expires.

3.  The term of office for a judge of a municipal court established by city ordinance is four years.

                                                                    * * * * * * * * * *

                                                                    July 16, 1992

HonorableMarlinAppelwick
State Representative, District 46
Post Office Box 40691
Olympia, Washington  98504-0691

                                                                                                                 Cite as:  AGO 1992 No. 15

Dear Representative Appelwick:

            You have requested our opinion concerning the establishment of municipal courts under RCW 3.50 and termination of municipal court departments of a district court under RCW 3.46.  We paraphrase your questions:

            1.   What requirements must be met to terminate a previously established municipal department of a district court under RCW 3.46?

            2.    If a municipal department of a district court is abolished, what becomes of the district judge who has presided in the municipal department?

            3.   What is the term of office of a municipal court judge under RCW 3.50?

                                                              BRIEF ANSWERS

1.   To terminate a previously created municipal department of a district court under RCW 3.46, a city must reach agreement with the county concerning the costs associated with criminal proceedings which are filed in district court as a result of the termination, then the city can give written notice to the county legislative authority requiring the termination of the municipal department.  If the county has more than one district for the district court, then the districting plan would be amended to reflect the termination of the municipal department.

2.   A district court judge who has been serving in a municipal department remains a district court judge following termination of the municipal department until he or she vacates the position prior to the end of his or her term, or his or her term expires.

3.         The term of office for a municipal court judge is four years.

                                                                BACKGROUND

            RCW 3.46 permits any city to secure the establishment of a "municipal department of the district court".  RCW 3.46.010.  A municipal department is part of the larger district court system established in each of the counties.  RCW 3.38.020(6).  RCW 3.46.020 requires that "[e]ach judge of a municipal department shall be a judge of the district court in which the municipal department is situated."

            RCW 3.50 provides an optional alternative municipal court system for cities of population 400,000 or less.  Such a city may by ordinance establish its own municipal court.  The ordinance must be adopted on or before December 1 of any year to take effect January 1 of the following year.  RCW 3.50.060.  A municipal court established under RCW 3.50 is not part of the district court system.  Its municipal judges are chosen by the city, and are not required to be district court judges.

            RCW 3.38 requires that district court districts have a districting committee which shall prepare a plan for districting the county into one or more district courts.  RCW 3.38.020.  The plan shall include the boundaries of each district; the number of judges to be elected; and the departments into which each district court shall be initially organized, including municipal departments under RCW 3.46.  RCW 3.38.020(1), (2), (6).  Districting plans may be amended.  RCW 3.38.040.

            Finally, under RCW 3.34.030, a county legislative authority may reduce the number of district judges required for the county if any city or town within the county elects to select, under RCW 3.50, a person other than a district judge to serve as the city or town's municipal judge.

                                                                    ANALYSIS

            Question 1:

            What requirements must be met to terminate a previously established municipal department of a district court under RCW 3.46?

            RCW 3.46.150 provides in relevant part:

                        Any city, having established a municipal department as provided in this chapter may, by written notice to the county legislative authority not less than thirty days prior to February 1st of any year, require the termination of the municipal department created pursuant to this chapter.  However, the city may not give the written notice required by this section unless the city has reached an agreement with the county under chapter 39.34 RCW under which the county is to be paid a reasonable amount for costs associated with prosecution, adjudication, and sentencing in criminal cases filed in district court as a result of the termination.

            Thus, two requirements appear from this section:  (1) notice from the city to the county legislative authority, and (2) an agreement regarding costs of processing these criminal cases which are filed in the district court as a result of the termination.

            We note that the above section does not provide that the city may terminate the municipal department of the district court, but that the city may, by written notice to the county, "require the termination" of the municipal department.  In other words, the city's notice to the county requires the county to terminate the municipal department.  The further language requiring that the notice be given "not less than thirty days prior to February 1st of any year", when read in conjunction with other sections discussed below, underscores that steps must be taken by the county to terminate a municipal department of a district court.

            As mentioned in the background above, a district court's districting committee must include in its districting plan the district, districts, or departments into which the district court shall be initially organized, including municipal departments as provided for in RCW 3.46.  Amendments to the districting plan shall be submitted to the county legislative authority by the districting committee no later than March 15 of each year, for adoption no later than May 1, and following the same procedures as the original districting plan.  RCW 3.38.040.

            The February 1 deadline for a city giving notice to the county requiring termination of a municipal department under RCW 3.46.150 corresponds with the annual county districting committee's submission of amendments to the county's districting plan no later than March 15 under RCW 3.38.040.  Once the amendment takes effect, no later than May 1, the municipal department of the district court is terminated.

            Question 2:

            If a municipal department of a district court is abolished, what becomes of the district judge who has presided in the municipal department?

            As we pointed out in our answer to Question 1, the municipal department of a district court is established in the county's districting plan and the municipal department is terminated when the amended districting plan takes effect.  RCW 3.38.020(6).  The fact that the municipal department has been eliminated does not necessarily require the elimination of a district court judge.  Even though a city is operating its own municipal court, the city must still fall within a county district court district.  RCW 3.38.050 provides in part:

                        District court districts shall be established in accordance with the following standards:

                        (1)  Every part of the county shall be in some district.

                       . . . .

                        (5)  A city shall not lie in more than one district.

Thus, even if a city operates its own municipal court, it must still lie within one of the county's district court districts.  Therefore, the elimination of the municipal department does not necessarily require the elimination of a district court judge position.

            Obviously, if a city operates its own municipal court, the county may require fewer district court judges to serve the district that includes the city.

            The county legislative authority may, under certain circumstances, reduce the number of district judges required for the county when a city chooses under RCW 3.50 to create a municipal court and selects someone other than a district court judge to serve as its municipal judge.  RCW 3.34.030.  RCW 3.38.020(2) provides that the districting plan shall include the number of judges to be elected in each district.  By amending the districting plan the county may eliminate the position of district court judge who has been serving in the municipal department.

            Any amendment to a districting plan which would shorten the term of any judge is not effective until the next regular election for district judge.  RCW 3.38.040.  Therefore, as we stated in AGO 1991 No. 13, a full-time district court judge who has been serving in a municipal department remains a district court judge, even after the elimination of the municipal department, until he or she vacates the position prior to the end of his or her term, or until the term of the district judge expires.

            Question 3:

            What is the term of office of a municipal court judge under RCW 3.50?

            RCW 3.50.040 provides in relevant part:

                        Within thirty days after the effective date of the ordinance creating the municipal court, the mayor of each city or town shall appoint a municipal judge or judges of the municipal court for a term of four years.  The terms of judges serving on July 1, 1984, and municipal judges who are appointed to terms commencing before January 1, 1986, shall expire January 1, 1986.  The terms of their successors shall commence on January 1, 1986, and on January 1 of each fourth year thereafter, pursuant to appointment or election as provided in this chapter.  Appointments shall be made on or before December 1 of the year next preceding the year in which the terms commence.

(Emphasis added.)  RCW 3.50.050 provides:

                        The legislative authority of the city or town may, by ordinance, provide that the position of municipal judge within the city or town shall be an elective position.  The ordinance shall provide for the qualifications of the municipal judge which shall be the same as the qualifications necessary for the appointment thereof; and further, shall provide that the municipal judge shall be elected in the same manner as other elective city officials are elected to office, and that the term of the municipal judge shall be for a term of four years commencing on January 1, 1986, and every four years thereafter.

(Emphasis added.)

            The above provisions make clear that the term of a municipal court judge is four years.  While the Legislature has given cities the authority to vary, by ordinance, certain aspects of the municipal court system such as judges' salaries (RCW 3.50.080), and whether judges are elected (RCW 3.50.050), the Legislature has not allowed cities to vary the terms of municipal judges by ordinance.

                                                                 CONCLUSION

            A city which previously established a municipal department of a district court under RCW 3.46 may establish by ordinance adopted by December 1 of any year, a municipal court, to take effect January 1 of the following year.  RCW 3.50.060.  Within 30 days of the effective date of the ordinance, the mayor of the city must appoint the municipal judge or judges, for four-year terms.  In other words, the ordinance, its effective date, and the judicial appointments must occur prior to February 1.  RCW 3.50.040.  Also by February 1, the city must give notice to the county requiring the county to terminate the municipal department of the district court.  RCW 3.46.150.  If the city has not appointed a district court judge to become a municipal judge, the county may otherwise reduce the number of district court positions required for the county.  RCW 3.34.030.  To terminate the municipal department of the district court, the district's districting plan must be amended, and the plan must be submitted by March 15.  RCW 3.38.020(6), .040.  The amendments must be adopted no later than May 1.  RCW 3.38.040.  However, because an amendment to the districting plan may not shorten the term of any judge, a district court judge who has been serving in the municipal department remains a district court judge until he or she vacates the position prior to the end of his or her term, or his or her term expires.

            We trust this opinion will be of assistance to you.

                                    Very truly yours,

                                    KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
                                    Attorney General

                                    NANCY THYGESEN DAY
                                    Senior Counsel
                                    Assistant Attorney General

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