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Washington Supreme Court Clarifies Court of Appeals Decisions of One Division Do Not Bind Other Court of Appeals Divisions

Posted Wednesday, February 21, 2018 by McKean J. Evans

On February 15, 2018, the Washington Supreme Court issued an important decision clarifying the authority of Washington’s Court of Appeals in the case In re Personal Restraint of Arnold, Case No. 94544-6. Washington’s Court of Appeals is divided into three co-equal divisions adjudicating appeals arising from Superior Courts in three geographic parts of Washington – Division One in the Seattle and North Puget Sound area, Division Two in the Tacoma and Southwest Puget Sound area, and Division Three in Eastern Washington. The Arnold decision answers the question: what weight does one Court of Appeals division give to the decisions of another division?

In the Arnold case, Division Three of the Court of Appeals considered whether Mr. Arnold was required to register as a sex offender. The Division Three based its decision on prior decisions from Divisions One and Two on similar legal issues. Division Three reasoned it was bound to follow the prior decisions of Divisions One and Two under the principle that courts must follow existing decisions of co-equal branches of the same court. Division Three found that even if the prior decisions were wrong, departing from the prior decisions would create “unjustified harm by rendering the applicable law impermissibly vague” (a principle Division Three called “horizontal stare decisis”).

Washington’s Supreme Court reversed, holding that Division Three’s deference to prior decisions of Divisions One and Two violated the statutes establishing the powers and duties of the Court of Appeals. First, the Supreme Court analyzed Washington’s sex offender registration statute and concluded the statute unambiguously required Mr. Arnold to register as a sex offender. Second, the Supreme Court analyzed the decisions from Court of Appeals Divisions One and Two to the contrary, and rejected those courts’ reasoning. Third, the Supreme Court rejected Division Three’s deference to the prior decisions of Divisions One and Two.

The Supreme Court ruled Court of Appeals Divisions must give other Divisions’ decisions “respectful consideration” but not total deference. The court rejected any kind of “horizontal stare decisis” among Court of Appeals Divisions. The Supreme Court observed the Washington Constitution and statutes specifically anticipated that different Court of Appeals Divisions would disagree, and placed responsibility with the Supreme Court to resolve such disagreements. Conflicts among the Court of Appeals must be resolved by the Supreme Court, not by deference to prior Court of Appeals decisions. The Supreme Court recognized conflicting Court of Appeals decisions can create confusion, but affirmed that “our current system of rigorous debate” between Court of Appeals Divisions “creates the best structure for the development of Washington common law.”

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