The implications on appeal of “clarified” trial court orders

EraserIt drives me crazy when an adverse party asks the trial court to “clarify” a recent ruling. Too often, such a request is not a request for clarification at all, but instead an effort to expand the scope of the order or otherwise change its meaning. Funny how these requests for “clarification” are brought up after an attorney realizes he neglected to make an argument, ask for a specific form of relief, or prejudiced his client’s interest by an admission in court.

Such was the case in In re Christopher B., case no. C077467 (3rd Dist. Sept. 28, 2015), a “Murphy conservatorship” proceeding. (Welf. &  Inst. Code, §§ 5000, et seq., 5008, subd. (h)(1)(B), 5361; Pen Code, § 1370.) A Murphy conservatorship is premised on the proposed conservatee’s mental unfitness to stand trial on specified crimes and the lack of prospect of restoration to competency. There must be a pending criminal proceeding in order to establish a Murphy conservatorship . . . which is where the problems started for the Public Guardian seeking to establish the conservatorship.

Christopher B. was charged by criminal complaint with the prerequisite crimes and found not competent to stand trial, and his criminal proceedings were stayed while he was committed to a state hospital. As he neared the end of his maximum legal commitment there, the hospital determined that he could not be restored to competency because he refused voluntary treatment, and recommended a Murphy conservatorship.

With Christopher B.’s release imminent and the prosecutor unable to file a criminal information because of the stay of proceedings, the prosecutor instead obtained a new grand jury indictment on the same charges in order to establish the criminal proceedings prerequisite to a Murphy conservatorship.

You might be thinking that the indictment maneuver involved some sleight-of-hand, but it was perfectly legitimate. The sleight-of-hand wasn’t attempted until later (though I am not alleging it was intentional sleight-of-hand), after the prosecutor agreed to have the court dismiss the “charges” against Christopher B. Apparently recognizing after the fact that the dismissal of the charges would eliminate the prerequisite for a Murphy conservatorship, the prosecutor asked the court to “clarify” its ruling so that it dismissed only the original complaint and not the subsequent indictment. Even though Christopher B.’s defense counsel acquiesced to this request, that wasn’t the end of the matter.

In the conservatorship proceeding, Christopher B. argued that there was insufficient evidence of the prerequisite pending criminal proceeding. But wait, you say to yourself, didn’t the criminal court clarify its order to specify that the dismissal applied only to the complaint and not the indictment? The Court of Appeal doesn’t buy that for one minute, finding that this amounted to much more than a clarification:

In the present case, the criminal court issued an order of dismissal unambiguously dismissing the entire case at the request of the prosecution. Having realized the effect on the continued viability of the conservatorship proceeding, the prosecutor then sought on the next day to convince the criminal court to “clarify” that its ruling applied only to the underlying complaint. (It is unclear why the prosecutor chose to pursue this subterfuge rather than take the straightforward route of seeking a reindictment; at oral argument the parties did not explore, beyond conclusory assertions with limited analysis, whether a second prosecution would have been time barred.)

(Emphasis added.) In other words, this was not merely a clerical correction, which a trial court can always make. This was a correction of judicial error of a final judgment, something the criminal trial court had no jurisdiction to do. Calling the criminal trial court’s conduct “transparent efforts to garb its reconsideration of its dismissal of the criminal case in the cloak of “interpreting” an otherwise unambiguous dismissal order,” the Court of Appeal finds that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to correct the judgment, the original judgment dismissing all charges (thus applicable to the complaint and the indictment) stands, and there is thus no evidence of a pending criminal proceeding, requiring that the order establishing the Murphy conservatorship be reversed.

The lesson of Christopher B. is that a trial court’s “clarification” of a ruling must be closely examined to see if it implicates jurisdictional concerns. Litigators should consider this when seeking or opposing such clarification, and lawyers on appeal should give such “clarifications” special scrutiny.