Subject-Matter Jurisdiction in the Washington Supreme Court: Unsettling the Settled

Lawyer in front of courthouse

Subject-matter jurisdiction—the power to decide the merits of a case—was one of the subjects of Ronald Wastewater District v. Olympic View Water & Sewer District, a Washington Supreme Court decision issued on Oct. 15.

The facts are these: Some 35 years ago, King County transferred sewerage services in Point Wells to Ronald Wastewater District. King County and Ronald Wastewater asked the King County Superior Court to approve the transfer, which it did in a 1985 judgment. Neighboring municipalities recently questioned whether Ronald Wastewater could lawfully provide sewerage services to Point Wells. In response, Ronald Wastewater then filed a declaratory-judgment action, joining not only King County as a party, but also Snohomish County, Olympic View Water and Sewer District, and the city of Woodway.

The case reached the Washington Supreme Court, which held that the statutes governing the transfer of sewerage service forbade the transfer because Point Wells was outside the territory of the transferor, King County. The 1985 Superior Court judgment, however, had approved the transfer from King County to Ronald Wastewater—and even a legally erroneous judgment is generally given res judicata effect, which precludes relitigation.

The parties challenging the judgment argued that it was not, in fact, res judicata because the Superior Court had lacked personal and subject-matter jurisdiction. The Supreme Court agreed that the Superior Court in 1985 hadn’t obtained personal jurisdiction over Snohomish County, Olympic View, and Woodway.

The court then addressed subject-matter jurisdiction. Past decisions distinguish between a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and a legally erroneous remedy. Subject-matter jurisdiction depends on whether the court could adjudicate “the type of controversy involved in the action,” not simply whether it “lack[ed] authority to enter a given order.”

The Supreme Court, however, held that the Superior Court in 1985 had lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to approve the annexation. The annexation remedy was part of the jurisdictional inquiry, the Supreme Court reasoned, because the kind of remedy a court orders “is indicative of whether the court adjudicated a controversy that it should not have.” It gave a hypothetical example: in a quiet-title action, a “court would exceed its relief authority if it were to issue tax relief. To the extent an order did so, that portion of the order would be void.”

This reasoning, it might be argued, departs from past decisions. The courts have subject-matter jurisdiction to decide a quiet-title action. To say that the court presiding over such an action lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to issue “tax relief” is simply to say that the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to issue that remedy. But Washington precedents hold that subject-matter jurisdiction cannot depend solely on what remedy a court orders.

Note, too, that in the hypothetical quiet-title action, there may not be a practical reason for the court’s new rule. If the action was between two private persons, the Superior Court would lack personal jurisdiction to order tax relief anyway, since the governmental taxing authority would not be a party. If the dispute was between a private person and a governmental landowner that is also the relevant taxing authority, the government could simply appeal the tax relief. 

As further support for its jurisdictional holding, the Supreme Court pointed to the nature of municipal annexation. Annexation is a “plenary power enjoyed by the [s]tate, which the [L]egislature may delegate to courts by statute.” The statute under which the Superior Court approved the transfer and annexation in 1985 “limited the court’s adjudicative authority to territory within” King County. Because Point Wells is in Snohomish County, the Superior Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to approve the annexation.

If followed to its logical conclusion, this reasoning may have far-reaching consequences. Our state enjoys many plenary powers—the power to enact criminal laws, for example. Yet our state’s courts have subject-matter jurisdiction even when they rule that a criminal law applies to someone to whom it should not. The Supreme Court did not explain why annexation should be treated differently. As for the statute governing transfer and annexation, it authorized superior courts to approve the transfer and annexation of sewerage-service areas. And the authority to decide includes the authority to decide wrongly.

Recognizing the decision’s potential effect on past judgments, Justice Steven González’s concurring opinion tried to stress “how limited our holding is.” Given the majority’s reasoning, however, the holding may not easily be limited.

Finally, it may be worth asking one last question: Was the case’s discussion of subject-matter jurisdiction strictly necessary? Even without reaching that issue, the Supreme Court could have directed the trial court to enter judgment in favor of the nonparties to the 1985 judgment. As a practical matter, that would have created two conflicting judgments. But in such circumstances, traditional res judicata doctrine holds that the later judgment prevails—a result that would have invalidated the transfer of sewerage service without a ruling on subject-matter jurisdiction.