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Delahanty v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

May 25, 2018



          BRIEF AND ORAL ARGUMENT FOR APPELLANTS: Michael R. Mazzoli Louisville, Kentucky.

          BRIEF AND ORAL ARGUMENT FOR APPELLEE: Michael J. O'Connell David A. Sexton Louisville, Kentucky.



          JONES, JUDGE.

         Appellants, Sean R. Delahanty and Stephanie Pearce Burke, in their official capacities as Jefferson District Court Judges, bring this appeal challenging a writ of mandamus/prohibition entered by the Jefferson Circuit Court. Following a careful review of the record and applicable law, we affirm.

         I. Background

         In 2012, the Kentucky General Assembly amended KRS[1] 186.574 to authorize county attorneys to operate traffic safety programs for traffic offenders prior to the adjudication of their traffic offenses, for which the county attorneys are permitted to charge a "reasonable fee." KRS 186.574(6)(a)-(c)(1).[2] The Jefferson County Attorney implemented a program under KRS 186.574(6), known as Drive Safe Louisville ("DSL"), in 2013. In brief, upon a traffic offender's successful completion of the DSL program, the County Attorney moves the district court to dismiss the traffic violation charge with prejudice.[3] Therefore, unlike state traffic school, traffic offenders who participate in the DSL program avoid having charges on their record and points added to their drivers' licenses.[4]

         Shortly after implementation of the DSL program, a dispute arose as to whether the judges of the Jefferson District Court could require DSL program participants to pay court costs prior to dismissing their citations. The Jefferson Circuit Court entered a writ of prohibition and/or mandamus directing all Jefferson District Court judges to dismiss charges against DSL program participants without imposing court costs. The order granting the writ was appealed to this Court and was then transferred to the Kentucky Supreme Court. In 2015, while the matter was pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court, the General Assembly amended KRS 186.574(6) to include language requiring any participant in a county attorney operated traffic safety program to "pay a thirty dollar ($30) fee to the county attorney in lieu of court costs." KRS 186.574(6)(e). As a result, by order entered June 11, 2015, the Kentucky Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as moot.

         During the pendency of the appeal, some - but not all - of the Jefferson District Court judges held cases in which the County Attorney had moved for dismissal of traffic citations issued to DSL program participants in abeyance. At the time the Kentucky Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, approximately 2, 300 DSL cases were being held in abeyance at the district court level. After the Kentucky Supreme Court entered its dismissal order, those cases were scheduled for disposition on the district court's November 17, 2015 docket; on September 22, 2015, Judge Delahanty issued an order prohibiting any of the 2, 300 cases to be advanced to any other docket without his prior approval.

         Two days later, Judge Delahanty emailed the Jefferson County Attorney to inform him that he had selected five pending DSL cases and moved them to the October 1, 2015 docket. Judge Delahanty stated that he believed the five listed cases were representative of the 2, 300 cases previously held in abeyance and that any order issued on October 1, 2015, would apply to all DSL cases. The County Attorney filed an objection to Judge Delahanty's "email order" on September 29, 2015. In addition to noting that the email communication did not comport with the requirements for an order, the County Attorney contended that it was unlawful for the district court to unilaterally select five cases and determine that they adequately represented all 2, 300 DSL cases currently pending. Notwithstanding its objections, the County Attorney appeared at the October 1, 2015 hearing.

         At the outset of the hearing, Judge Delahanty indicated that he had advanced the five cases to discuss the effect of the recent Supreme Court order and how the court was going to proceed with the 2, 300 DSL cases. For the remainder of the hearing - approximately an hour and twenty minutes - Judge Delahanty espoused his belief that KRS 186.574(6) was "amateurish" and poorly written, and he extensively questioned the County Attorney on various aspects of the DSL program. The County Attorney attempted to answer all questions and ended the hearing by requesting the district court to advance and dismiss all pending DSL cases. In the days that followed, Judge Delahanty sent several emails to the County Attorney requesting additional information on the DSL program.[5] Judge Delahanty also visited the County Attorney's office to participate in a demonstration of the DSL program.

         On October 23, 2015, Judge Delahanty issued a twenty-page order "granting motions to dismiss in part, denying in part" (the "October 2015 Order"). The first eighteen pages of the order addressed a myriad of issues, none of which had been raised by the parties; for example, the order discussed due process, separation of powers, potential ethical issues under the Kentucky Rules of Professional Conduct, equal protection, and the reasonableness of the DSL program's fees. Ultimately, the district court concluded that the DSL program and KRS 186.574(6) were unconstitutional, as written and applied.

         Even though Judge Delahanty concluded that the DSL program was unconstitutional, he did not order the County Attorney to refund the fees he collected from the defendants for participation in the DSL program. To the contrary, Judge Delahanty granted the County Attorney's motions to dismiss in all but one of the 2, 300 DSL program cases before him.[6] He reasoned that the County Attorney had entered into "plea agreements" with the traffic violators under which the County Attorney promised that the traffic charges would be dismissed upon successful completion of the DSL program. According to Judge Delahanty, the defendants had detrimentally relied on the County Attorney's offer making the agreements binding notwithstanding his conclusion that the DSL program and its authorizing statute were unconstitutional.

         Thereafter, Judge Delahanty and his colleague, Jefferson District Court Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke, began treating the portion of the October 2015 Order declaring the DSL program and KRS 186.574(6) unconstitutional as binding precedent. In reliance on the October 2015 Order, both judges began routinely: (1) advising counsel and persons appearing before them that the DSL program was no longer available as an option; (2) no longer referring traffic offenders to the DSL program; (3) not continuing cases for the purpose of allowing would-be participants to take part in the DSL program; and/or (4) refusing to dismiss citations upon the attendees' completion of the DSL program.

         On December 2, 2015, Judge Delahanty entered an order directing that all DSL cases be continued on the court's docket until November 17, 2016.[7]On December 22, 2015, the County Attorney filed a petition for a writ of prohibition and/or mandamus with the Jefferson Circuit Court pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Civil Procedure ("CR") 81, Kentucky Supreme Court Rule ("SCR") 1.040(6), and KRS 32A.080. The County Attorney's petition alleged that Judges Delahanty and Burke were refusing to apply KRS 186.574(6) on the basis that it had been previously declared unconstitutional by Judge Delahanty. The petition went on to allege that Judges Delahanty and Burke had "repeatedly declared and ruled that any citizen who successfully complete[s] the Drive Safe Louisville program and otherwise complies with the financial requirements of that statute will not have their cases dismissed when the Commonwealth, through the Jefferson County Attorney, makes motions to dismiss those respective traffic citations." (Emphasis in original).

         The County Attorney requested the circuit court to grant his petition and prohibit Judges Delahanty and Burke from taking any action based on Judge Delahanty's prior opinion declaring KRS 186.574(6) unconstitutional. The County Attorney also requested a writ directing and mandating that Judges Delahanty and Burke give full force and effect to the provisions of KRS 186.574(6).

         In their response, Judges Delahanty and Burke contended that a writ was an inappropriate remedy. They noted that, if the October 2015 Order had been adverse to the County Attorney, the County Attorney could have either appealed the Order to the circuit court or requested a certification of the law.[8]Because the October 2015 Order had granted the County Attorney's motions to dismiss, however, Judges Delahanty and Burke alleged that none of the parties affected by it had received an adverse result. Therefore, the judges contended that there could be no showing of irreparable injury sufficient to grant a writ.

         On February 22, 2016, the County Attorney moved the circuit court to enter a stay in all DSL cases pending before Judges Delahanty and Burke until final adjudication of the County Attorney's petition for a writ of prohibition and/or mandamus. The County Attorney stated that he had not previously requested a stay because Judge Delahanty had continued all DSL cases until the coming November. However, Judge Delahanty had recently orally informed an Assistant County Attorney that he wanted the County Attorney to appear in front of him because he wanted to advance five of the DSL cases he had previously continued. The County Attorney alleged that Judge Delahanty had not given his office any information concerning which five cases he wanted to advance, why he wanted to advance those cases, or what matters would be taken up at the hearing. Despite the County Attorney's objections, Judge Delahanty held a hearing on the five DSL cases, at which he ordered that the County Attorney's office to refund any fees paid by the DSL defendants and continued those cases until March 3, 2016. The circuit court granted the County Attorney's motion for a stay on March 2, 2016.[9]

         On December 29, 2016, the circuit court entered an order granting the County Attorney's petition for a writ and vacating the portion of the October 2015 Order that declared KRS 186.574(6) unconstitutional. In its order, the circuit court found that the only issue that had been properly before Judge Delahanty when he entered the October 2015 Order was the County Attorney's motions to dismiss. Accordingly, the circuit court found that Judge Delahanty had been acting outside of his jurisdiction when he sua sponte ruled that KRS 186.574(6) was unconstitutional. The circuit court further found that petitioning the court for a writ of prohibition and/or mandamus was the appropriate - and only - avenue of redress for the County Attorney. While the circuit court declined to address whether KRS 186.574(6) passed constitutional muster, it delineated the appropriate steps that should be taken when analyzing the issue, should it ever properly appear before the district court.[10]

         This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         Appeals of a writ action are reviewed under a three-part analysis. Appalachian Racing, LLC. v. Commonwealth, 504 S.W.3d 1, 4 (Ky. 2016). Factual findings are reviewed for clear error and legal conclusions are reviewed de novo. Id. "But ultimately, the decision whether or not to issue a writ of prohibition is a question of judicial discretion. So review of a court's decision to issue a writ is conducted under the abuse-of-discretion standard." Id.

         III. Analysis

         Neither Judge Burke nor Judge Delahanty recognizes the validity of the DSL program. Their position is that Judge Delahanty's October 2015 Order declaring KRS 186.574(6) unconstitutional rendered the DSL program, as well as any other similar program in the Commonwealth, invalid. As it stands currently, traffic offenders whose cases are assigned to either Judge Delahanty or Judge Burke are not able to reap the benefit of KRS 186.574(6) and the DSL program. Against this backdrop, we consider whether the County Attorney sufficiently demonstrated the necessity of a writ.

         "A writ of prohibition is an 'extraordinary remedy and we have always been cautious and conservative both in entertaining petitions for and in granting such relief.'" Grange Mut. Ins. Co. v. Trude, 151 S.W.3d 803, 808 (Ky. 2004) (quoting Bender v. Eaton, 343 S.W.2d 799, 800 (Ky. 1961)). "Such a writ bypasses the regular appellate process and requires significant interference with the lower courts' administration of justice." Cox v. Braden, 266 S.W.3d 792, 795 (Ky. 2008). Because of the great caution that must be afforded when determining whether to grant a writ of prohibition, appellate courts abide by a "strict standard" in analyzing petitions for such writs. Id. at 796.

         Writs of prohibition may only be granted upon the petitioner showing that:

(1) the lower court is proceeding or is about to proceed outside of its jurisdiction and there is no remedy through an application to an intermediate court; or (2) that the lower court is acting or is about to act erroneously, although within its jurisdiction, and there exists no adequate remedy by appeal or otherwise and great injustice and irreparable injury will result if the petition is not granted.

Hoskins v. Maricle, 150 S.W.3d 1, 10 (Ky. 2004). In the second class of writs, where a court is acting within its jurisdiction but erroneously, our Supreme Court has recognized a sub-category of "certain special cases" that merit remedy by a writ where "a substantial miscarriage of justice will result if the lower court is proceeding erroneously, and correction of the error is necessary and appropriate in the interest of orderly judicial administration." Bender, 343 S.W.2d at 801. In those special cases involving the interest of the orderly administration of justice, the requirement that the petitioner must prove great injustice and irreparable harm is waived. Grange Mut. Ins. Co, 151 S.W.3d at 808. Notwithstanding, if there is an adequate remedy by appeal, this type of writ is not available. Id.

         A. Jurisdictional Writs

         "One seeking a writ when the lower court is acting 'outside of its jurisdiction' need not establish the lack of an adequate alternative remedy or the suffering of great injustice and irreparable injury. Those preconditions apply only when a lower court acts 'erroneously but within its jurisdiction'." Goldstein v. Feeley, 299 S.W.3d 549, 552 (Ky. 2009). "In the context of the extraordinary writs, 'jurisdiction' refers not to mere legal errors but to subject-matter jurisdiction . . . which goes to the court's core authority to even hear cases." Lee v. George, 369 S.W.3d 29, 33 (Ky. 2012) (internal citations omitted). A court has "subject matter jurisdiction when the 'kind of case' identified in the pleadings is one which the court has been empowered, by statute or constitutional provision, to adjudicate." Daugherty v. Telek, 366 S.W.3d 463, 467 (Ky. 2012).

         "Once a court has acquired subject matter and personal jurisdiction, challenges to its subsequent rulings and judgment are questions incident to the exercise of jurisdiction rather than to the existence of [subject-matter] jurisdiction." Hisle v. Lexington-Fayette Urban Cty. Gov't, 258 S.W.3d 422, 429-30 (Ky. App. 2008). Thus, in assessing jurisdiction for the purpose of deciding whether a writ is appropriate, we ask whether the judge was vested with the authority to act in the particular category of case at issue. If the judge had the authority to act in the kind of case at issue, the judge had subject-matter jurisdiction, and a writ is not available under the first category of writs. See Sitar v. Commonwealth, 407 S.W.3d 538, 542 (Ky. 2013).

         The circuit court concluded that a writ was appropriate because Judge Delahanty did not have jurisdiction to sua sponte invalidate KRS 186.574(6). Because the circuit court concluded that jurisdiction was lacking, it did not analyze the substance of the other errors alleged by the County Attorney before granting the requested writ. However, the cases before Judge Delahanty involved traffic offenses. Section 113(6) of the Constitution of Kentucky ("Ky. Const.") states that: "The district court shall be a court of limited jurisdiction and shall exercise original jurisdiction as may be provided by the General Assembly." Ky. Const. 113(6). The General Assembly vested the district courts with subject-matter jurisdiction over traffic offenses. See KRS 24A.110. Therefore, Judge Delahanty had subject-matter jurisdiction to act on the cases before him.

         The errors alleged by the County Attorney in his writ petition concern the manner in which Judge Delahanty raised and decided the constitutionality of KRS 186.574(6), and his and Judge Burke's continued refusal to recognize the validity of KRS 186.574(6) in the traffic-related cases assigned to them. The alleged errors implicate not subject-matter jurisdiction, but rather implicate particular-case jurisdiction, which describes the situation when a court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a particular type or class of action, but incorrectly exercises its authority. Masters v. Masters, 415 S.W.3d 621, 624, n.2 (Ky. 2013). Errors directed at particular-case jurisdiction belong in the second category of writs, not the first. Thus, the circuit court erred when it concluded that a writ was appropriate because Judge Delahanty lacked jurisdiction.

         B. Erroneous Action Writs

         1. ...

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