Don’t treat one superior court judge as the reviewing court for another

Writs and appeals are sometimes not the only routes (or even the preferred routes) to relief from an adverse order or judgment. Motions for reconsideration, post-trial motions for new trial or to vacate the judgment, and motions to set aside a judgment all have the possibility of getting you a “reversal” of sorts without ever leaving the superior court.

I’ve written before about how a superior court judge may change a prior interim ruling on his own motion, even when the decision to do so is triggered by a faulty motion for reconsideration. The chief limitation on this practice is that, in most cases, one judge on a superior court cannot reverse the ruling of another judge on the same superior court, at least so long as the original judge is still available, i.e., still on that court. In Marriage of Oliverez, case no. H040955 (6th Dist., July 27, 2015), the court confirms that this rule applies even when the case has been transferred to a new judge for trial.

The original judge in Oliverez had denied husband’s motion pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 664.6 to enforce a settlement. The case was then transferred (for reasons the court was unable to discern from the record) to another judge, before whom it was tried. In his tentative ruling, the second judge stated his intent to reconsider the first judge’s ruling on the settlement enforcement motion and later gave formal notice of its intent and afforded the parties an opportunity to brief the issue. The second judge then issued a statement of decision and final judgment, in which he vacated the prior order denying the motion and entered a judgment of dissolution that incorporated the terms of the settlement. Wife appealed.

The Court of Appeal covers the “narrow” exceptions to the general rule that one trial court judge may not reconsider and overrule an interim ruling of another trial judge:

“[W]here the judge who made the initial ruling is unavailable to reconsider the motion, a different judge may entertain the reconsideration motion.” Another exception is when the facts have changed or when the judge has considered further evidence and law. Additionally, a second judge may reverse a prior ruling of another judge if the record shows that it was based on inadvertence, mistake, or fraud. Mere disagreement, as here, with the prior trial judge’s ruling, however, is not enough to overturn that ruling.
(Citations omitted.)

Since the first trial judge in Oliveras was still on the bench, and it was apparent from the second judge’s ruling that he merely disagreed with the first judge on the original evidence and law, the judgment vacating the prior ruling did not fall within the exceptions.

Perhaps the husband saw the writing on the wall. He did not file a respondent’s brief in the Court of Appeal.

So, do you want your superior court judge to reconsider an earlier ruling based on the same facts and law? Knock yourself out with the same judge, but don’t try to turn another superior court judge into a one-judge appellate court.

I Hate Motions for Reconsideration

Another good post from Professor Martin yesterday, this time concerning In Re Marriage of Barthold (1st Dist. Jan. 15, 2008).  The court summarizes its holding in the initial paragraphs:

The California Supreme Court held, in Le Francois v. Goel (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1094 (Le Francois), that even when Code of Civil Procedure section 1008 (section 1008) precludes a party from moving for reconsideration, a trial court has inherent authority to correct an erroneous ruling on its own motion. In this marital dissolution case, the trial judge denied a post-judgment motion filed by the wife. She promptly filed a motion for reconsideration. The trial judge determined that the motion did not in fact meet the requirements of section 1008, but also that his earlier ruling had been erroneous.  Accordingly, the judge reversed himself, and granted the relief sought by the wife.

We conclude that the trial court’s inherent authority to correct its errors applies even when the trial court was prompted to reconsider its prior ruling by a motion filed in violation of section 1008. Because that is what occurred in the present case, we affirm the trial court’s order.

As Professor Martin points out with one of his patented — and well worth reading — “translations,” this holding is likely to trigger more motions for reconsideration that the filing parties know lack any statutory basis, at least until the trial courts regularly sanction such conduct.  I think many lawyers may see sanctions as a very justifiable risk to get a second crack at a dispositive motion.

This decision reminds me how much I dislike the rules for reconsideration motions, which must be based on new law or facts (neither of which could have been reasonably discovered earlier), yet must be filed within a ridiculously short time frame of 10 days from the date of service of the notice of entry of the order on which the moving party seeks reconsideration.

I think what the court did here is effectively convert the reconsideration motion into a petition for rehearing.  The trial court did not consider the “new” evidence submitted with the rehearing petition, but was prompted to revisit its earlier ruling and reread the original evidence.  (At least, this was the Court of Appeal’s characterization — I think it is somewhat fanciful to believe that the court did not actually consider the new evidence, even though it did not mention it in the order reversing its previous ruling.)

So that got me to thinking: would rehearing petitions in trial courts be a good idea?  (Maybe not for appellate lawyers — more on that below.)  A statutory motion for rehearing on grounds similar to those allowed in the Courts of Appeal seems attractive in the abstract.  That is, if the trial court relied on facts different than those supported by the papers, made a mistake of law, and maybe even if it based its decision on an unbriefed issue, why not allow the losing party to point out that error if the correct facts or analysis should lead to a different result?

I know that such rehearing petitions would probably greatly outnumber motions made under the present reconsideration statute, resulting in a bigger workload for the trial courts.  But that increase could be mitigated if the scheme kept the filing deadline short and allowed for summary denial of a rehearing petition (i.e., without a written opinion setting forth reasons).  And if the success rate of trial court rehearing petitions mirrored the extremely low success rate of rehearing petitions in the Court of Appeal, I suspect you would see the filing rate level out well below the filing rate during the likely initial surge.

It might even cut down on the rate of appeals. (Agh! The horror!)  If parties believe that issues already twice considered in the trial court are less susceptible to reversal, they may be less inclined to challenge them on appeal.  Geez, forget I said any of this!

Of course, I’ve given this about two minutes of thought (one of the dangers of timely blogging).  Maybe the idea is insane.  If you can think of any major drawbacks, pipe up in the comments.  I’m definitely open to persuasion.