Got a stay? Challenge the judge anyway!

Under Code of Civil Procedure 170.3, subdivision (c), a party may apply to disqualify the trial judge for cause, but must submit the statement of objection “at the earliest practicable opportunity after discovery of the facts constituting the ground for disqualification.”  In Tri Counties Bank v. Superior Court (Amaya-Guenon), case no. F055084 (5th Dist. Oct. 28, 2008), Tri Counties tried to convince the court of appeal that its seven-month delay met the “earliest practical opportunity standard” under the circumstances of the case.  No dice.  And in rejecting that contention, the court of appeal makes an interesting exception to a stay of proceedings in the trial court.

Tri Counties asserted that the the judge should be disqualified for conducting an independent investigation into a factual issue relevant to class certification.  It learned of the investigation from the trial court’s tentative ruling in the class certification motion and, in a supplemental memorandum, urged it as a ground to deny certification.  When the trial court certified the class, Tri Counties sought appellate review of the certification order by petitioning for a writ of mandate, citing the improper investigation as a ground to grant the petition, but did not seek the trial judge’s disualification.  Only after that petition was denied did Tri Counties submit its 170.3 statement of objection, which the trial court struck as untimely.  Tri Counties then filed a writ petition challenging that order.

Tri Counties contended that the stay issued in connection with the first writ petition prevented it from filing its statement of objection until the conclusion of that proceeding.  The court notes, however, that the stay did not take effect until more than three moths after Tri Counties became aware of the improper investigation, leaving it plenty of time to challenge the judge.

The second reason the court gave was more interesting.  It holds that proceedings regarding the qualification of a judge are distinct from the ordinary proceedings, and the stay affects only the latter:

Second, although unnecessary to our conclusion that the statement of objection was untimely, it is our view that petitioner could have filed a statement of objection even while the stay was in effect.  Our general stay of proceedings was obviously directed to the underlying proceedings between the parties to the action (i.e., to the litigation itself), not to questions of the judge’s qualification to preside over those proceedings.  A judge’s qualification to preside as judge in a particular case is foundational to, and hence distinct from, the ordinary proceedings between the parties that would be tried or heard by the judge.  (See § 170.5, subd. (f).)  Because of this basic distinction between a judge’s qualification and the underlying litigation, we do not believe that our stay could reasonably be understood as barring petitioner from promptly filing a statement of objection in the trial court.  We note further that disqualification of the trial judge was not raised in the writ of mandate petition challenging the class certification order, thus the filing of a statement of objection to pursue disqualification would not have interfered with or affected our appellate review of that order.

This is an interesting and important distinction.  It’s also quite interesting that the court went out of its way to discuss it, since it was unnecessary once it found Tri Counties had delayed too long even before the stay went into effect.