Mark DeForrest, In the Groove or in a Rut? Resolving Conflicts Between the Divisions of the Washington State Court of Appeals at the Trial Court Level
Like many states, Washington has an appellate court structure that includes both a court of final review – the Washington Supreme Court – and lower appellate court – the Washington Court of Appeals. Unlike the federal circuit appellate system, the Washington Court of Appeals is a unitary court. It is structured, under the state constitution and legislative enactments, as a single court of appeals. Like the federal circuits, though, it sits in geographically distinct divisions. In Washington, those panels are located in three divisions, two in western Washington, and one in eastern Washington. Decisions from the superior court, with some exceptions, may be appealed to the court of appeals as a matter of right, with final review possible, either as of right or as a matter of discretionary review, by the state Supreme Court.
One weakness in this system is the lack of direction provided to a trial court when faced with a situation where there is no controlling Washington Supreme Court authority and there is a conflict in the case law among the various divisions of the Washington Court of Appeals. Washington’s approach to stare decisis and precedent provides guidance to trial courts when dealing with issues that have been resolved by the state Supreme Court or where there is either a single court of appeals ruling governing an area of law or a consensus among the divisions of the court of appeals. Unfortunately, there is no clear guidance regarding the proper action a trial court judge should take when faced with making a decision regarding an issue for which there is a conflict between the divisions within the court of appeals on an issue of law. This problem becomes all the more pressing when the conflict is between the appellate division in which the trial court is located and one or both of the other divisions of the Washington Court of Appeals.
 See Wash. Const. art. IV (for an overview of the structure and function of the Washington judiciary).
 Wash. Const. art. IV, § 30 (“judicial power is vested in a court of appeals, which shall be established by statute”); Wash. Rev. Code. § 2.06.010 (2010) (“[t]here is hereby established a court of appeals as a court of record”). In both the state constitution and in the state statutory code, the Washington Court of Appeals is consistently referred to in the singular. See, e.g., Wash. Rev. Code § 2.04.030 (2010); Id. §§ 2.06.030- .040 (2010); Id. §§ 2.06.050-.064 (2010 & Supp. 2011); Id. §§ 2.06.080-.085 (2010); Id. §§ 2.06.110-.160 (2010).
 Wash. Rev. Code. § 2.06.020 (2010).
 Id. § 2.06.030.
 Id. §§2.04.010-.020; Id. § 2.04.220.