Red Light for Jurisdiction

Most lawyers are familiar with the general rule that a trial court loses jurisdiction to act in a case upon the filing of a notice of appeal. There are actually a surprising number of exceptions to that rule . . . but the amended judgment in People v. Bhakta, case no. B190437 (2d Dist. May 6, 2008) is not one of them.

This was a public nuisance case brought by the People against the owners of a downtown motel under the “Red Light Abatement Law” to abate prostitution activity at the motel. The court entered a permanent injunction, and by stipulation the People were given an extended time to apply for fees and costs. The owners appealed from the permanent injunction, and while the appeal was pending, the People moved for and were awarded fees and costs. The court ordered an “amended judgment” that not only added the award for fees and costs, but

apparently changes some of the language in the prior judgment. The amended judgment appears to contain substantive changes beyond the insertion of the amounts awarded for attorney fees, investigative costs and court costs. For example, the amended judgment purports to add language that β€œ[a]ny future costs relating to enforcement and/or modification of the [j]udgment shall also be recoverable by [respondent] in a sum according to proof.”

The owners filed an “amended notice of appeal” from the “amended judgment,” which the court liberally construed as a notice of appeal from the order awarding fees and costs.

Now, there’s no question the court had power to entertain and rule on the motion for fees. The other amendments to the judgment? Well, not so much:

The trial court acted in excess of its subject matter jurisdiction by entering an amended judgment modifying the terms of the permanent injunction after a notice of appeal had been filed. In Holtum v. Grief (1904) 144 Cal. 521, 524-525, overruled on another point in Phelan v. Superior Court (1950) 35 Cal.2d 363, 371, our Supreme Court said: β€œThe decisions of this court are numerous and uniform to the effect that a judgment or order once regularly entered can be reviewed and set aside only in the modes prescribed by statute. If they have been entered prematurely or by inadvertence, they may be set aside on a proper showing [citation], and if the order as entered is not the order as made, the minutes may be corrected so as to make them speak the truth [citation], but subject to these exceptions the order is reviewable only on appeal, and the decision of the trial court having been once made after regular submission of the motion its power is exhausted–it is functus officio. [Citations.]” (Accord, Fallon v. Superior Court (1939) 33 Cal.App.2d 48, 52-53; see also Stevens v. Superior Court (1936) 7 Cal.2d 110, 113-114; APRI Ins. Co. v. Superior Court (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 176, 185.)

One thing I like about this case is that it invokes a 104-years-old case without a hint of self-consciousness — and the quotation from that case invokes earlier, but undisclosed, authorities. Sometimes, an old case is the only one — or at least the best one — you’ve got. So long as it’s still good law, use it.

1/26/17 update: on the subject of citing to old Supreme Court cases, see this post.