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The Finality of Unmodified Appellate Commissioner Rulings in Washington State

Abstract: In Washington appellate courts, unelected court commissioners handle most of the motion practice. Some motions are minor and mostly procedural, but other motions touch on the scope of the appeal or its merits. Because commissioners have the power to shape the course of an appeal, the Washington Rules of Appellate Procedure allow parties to internally appeal any commissioner decision to a panel of elected judges, via what is called a “motion to modify” under RAP 17.7. If a panel modifies a commissioner’s ruling, the panel’s decision becomes the final decision of the court on that issue. Similarly, multiple opinions recognize that an unmodified commissioner ruling also becomes the final decision on issues raised in a motion. Nevertheless, at times, appellate panels have ignored or amended earlier unmodified commissioner motion rulings, often without detailed explanation. This Essay explores opinions in which panels considered the court bound by unmodified commissioner rulings and when they did not. It reviews in detail those opinions where panels ignored or altered unmodified commissioner rulings and the reasons panels gave for doing so, if any. And it concludes with a recommendation that absent a clearly articulated and compelling reason, an appellate panel should follow the rule that a commissioner’s unmodified ruling is the court’s own—a concept that this Essay calls “the rule of ruling finality.”

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