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Alfredo Gomez v. the Superior Court of Lassen

June 18, 2012

ALFREDO GOMEZ, PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LASSEN COUNTY, RESPONDENT;
TOM FELKER, AS WARDEN, ETC., REAL PARTY IN INTEREST. MANUEL JUAREZ, PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LASSEN COUNTY, RESPONDENT; THE PEOPLE, REAL PARTY IN INTEREST.



Lassen County Super. Ct. No. 47543 Lassen County Super. Ct. No. CHW2530

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cantil-sakauye, C. J.

S179176

We granted review to decide whether a court commissioner has the authority to summarily deny a petition for writ of mandamus or habeas corpus under Code of Civil Procedure section 259, subdivision (a), which authorizes commissioners to "[h]ear and determine ex parte motions for orders and alternative writs and writs of habeas corpus."*fn1 We conclude that section 259, subdivision (a) does grant this authority to commissioners and that, at least when the petition seeks to enforce a prisoner's rights while in confinement -- but does not seek to collaterally attack the criminal conviction that provides the basis for that confinement -- the summary denial of a writ petition constitutes a "subordinate judicial dut[y]" properly undertaken by a commissioner within the meaning of article VI, section 22 of the California Constitution.

FACTS

Petitioner Gomez, an inmate at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Lassen Superior Court, seeking to require the prison to process four administrative appeals of grievances that he had filed. These administrative appeals addressed his grievances regarding the prison policies for the certification of in forma pauperis forms; the prison's alleged failure to provide postage for mailing legal documents; the prison's alleged failure to respond to a request for public records; and the prison's refusal to process administrative appeals in the first two matters. In his petition in the superior court, Gomez complained that the prison's failure to process his appeals prevented him from exhausting administrative remedies, a prerequisite to filing an action in federal court. (See Woodford v. Ngo (2006) 548 U.S. 81 [prisoner must properly exhaust administrative review processes before suing prison officials in a federal civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983].) Lassen Superior Court Commissioner Dawson Arnold signed an order denying the petition. Gomez objected to the order on the ground that he had not consented to the commissioner's jurisdiction. Commissioner Arnold entered a minute order striking the objection, citing section 259, subdivision (a).

Petitioner Juarez, also a prisoner at High Desert State Prison, similarly filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Lassen Superior Court seeking a writ directing prison authorities to process three administrative appeals of grievances that he had filed. These three administrative appeals addressed his grievances seeking damages resulting from an incident in which Juarez had been forced to "prone-out" for over five hours without being allowed to use the restroom; seeking return of a folder containing personal art work, addresses, and photographs, which had been confiscated by a prison staff member; and complaining about a staff member's alleged failure to respond to Juarez's complaint about the seizure of the folder. Like Gomez, Juarez alleged that the failure of prison authorities to process his appeals regarding these grievances prevented him from exhausting his administrative remedies, a prerequisite to seeking relief in federal court. Commissioner Arnold issued an order treating the petition for writ of mandate as a petition for writ of habeas corpus and denied it, concluding, "The petition does not merit relief in habeas corpus and is denied."

Gomez filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Court of Appeal, claiming that the commissioner lacked jurisdiction to deny his petition in the superior court. Juarez filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Court of Appeal on the same grounds, which the Court of Appeal treated as a petition for writ of mandate. The Court of Appeal issued an alternative writ in each case and ordered that the cases be consolidated.

In response to the alternative writ, the Attorney General filed a return on behalf of real parties in interest, the warden and other officials of High Desert State Prison, arguing that commissioners do not have the authority to enter final orders in writ proceedings unless both parties consent to the commissioner acting as a temporary judge. However, the Superior Court of Lassen County also filed a return, asserting that section 259, subdivision (a) authorizes commissioners to deny petitions for alternative writs and writs of habeas corpus, and that the statute is constitutional.

The Court of Appeal denied both petitions in a published decision, concluding that a commissioner is granted authority to deny habeas corpus petitions and petitions for writs of mandate by section 259, subdivision (a), which, as noted, authorizes commissioners to "[h]ear and determine ex parte motions for orders and alternative writs and writs of habeas corpus." The Court of Appeal concluded that a commissioner's authority to "determine ex parte motions for . . . alternative writs and writs of habeas corpus" includes the authority to summarily deny writ petitions.

The Court of Appeal further concluded that section 259, subdivision (a) is a lawful exercise of the Legislature's constitutional authority to "provide for the appointment by trial courts of record of officers such as commissioners to perform subordinate judicial duties." (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 22.) The appellate court reasoned that the relevant constitutional language was adopted as part of the 1966 revision of the California Constitution and was intended to include all the powers that commissioners had and were exercising at that time. (Rooney v. Vermont Investment Corp. (1973) 10 Cal.3d 351, 360-366 (Rooney).) Because the language of section 259, subdivision (a) was in existence at the time of the 1966 constitutional revision, the Court of Appeal concluded that the power to "hear and determine ex parte motions for . . . alternative writs and writs of habeas corpus" necessarily constituted a subordinate judicial duty within the meaning of the California Constitution. Finally, the Court of Appeal rejected petitioners' argument that the denial of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus is too important to be performed by a subordinate judicial officer, concluding that "the initial review of an application for a writ of habeas corpus is carefully constrained."

We granted review. In this court, the Attorney General on behalf of real parties in interest, initially took a neutral position. We requested supplemental briefing from the parties and invited the Lassen Superior Court, which had participated in the proceedings in the Court of Appeal, to file a brief. We also invited the California Court Commissioners Association to file an amicus curiae brief. In response to several questions posed by this court, the Attorney General argued in a supplemental brief that commissioners are authorized to summarily deny writ petitions. The superior court took the same position. At oral argument, the Attorney General changed its position, reverting to the position it took in the Court of Appeal - that commissioners are not authorized to summarily deny a writ petition or to issue an order to show cause.

DISCUSSION

As explained post, the Court of Appeal was correct both in its interpretation of section 259, subdivision (a) and in its conclusion that section 259, subdivision (a) is constitutional.

A. Interpretation of Section 259

Section 259, subdivision (a), gives every court commissioner the power to "[h]ear and determine ex parte motions for orders and alternative writs and writs of habeas corpus in the superior court for which the court commissioner is appointed." In interpreting a statute, we first " ' "scrutinize the actual words of the statute, giving them a plain and commonsense meaning." ' " (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1332.) If the " 'language of the statute is not ambiguous, the plain meaning controls and resort to extrinsic sources to determine the Legislature's intent is unnecessary.' " (Ste. Marie v. Riverside County Regional Park & Open-Space Dist. (2009) 46 Cal.4th 282, 288.) The plain language of the statute authorizes commissioners to grant or deny ex parte petitions for writs of habeas corpus and alternative writs.

Section 259, subdivision (a), authorizes commissioners only to determine "ex parte motions" for orders and writs. An "ex parte motion" is "[a] motion made to the court without notice to the adverse party; a motion that a court considers and rules on without hearing from all sides." (Black's Law Dict. (9th ed. 2009) p. 1106, col. 2.) As explained below, both alternative writs and writs of habeas corpus may be granted or denied on an ex parte basis.

A writ of mandate may be issued by any court to "any inferior tribunal, corporation, board, or person, to compel the performance of an act" that the law requires be performed. (§ 1085, subd. (a).) A petition seeking a writ of mandate will normally include a request for issuance of an alternative writ, which would direct the respondent to either perform the act that the petitioner alleges is required, or to show cause before the court why it is not required to do so. (§ 1087.) The court may deny the application for an alternative writ and dismiss the petition if the petition fails to allege a prima facie case for relief or is procedurally defective. (See, e.g., Dare v. Board of Medical Examiners (1943) 21 Cal.2d 790, 797.) Otherwise, the court may issue the alternative writ without prior notice to the respondent, before the respondent has filed a response of any kind, and without a hearing.*fn2 (§ 1088.) After an alternative writ is issued, it must be served on the respondent with a copy of the petition, thereby providing notice of the petitioner's claims. (§ 1088.) The respondent then files a "return" or answer to the petition and a hearing is conducted. (§ 1089.) Thus, the grant or denial of an alternative writ of mandate without an appearance by the adverse party is an ex parte matter. (See People v. Surety Insurance Co. (1975) 48 Cal.App.3d 123, 126 [commissioner was authorized to order forfeiture of bail bond because "by the very fact of the ...


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