“We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” A legal purist would call Justice Robert Jackson's famous remark about the U.S. Supreme Court a jaded opinion, but it's legally accurate.
Supreme Court justices are smart—very smart, in fact—but they're not necessarily smarter or better writers than state supreme court judges or other appellate judges. But unlike every other judge, they get the final say.
Every judge is an umpire, but U.S. Supreme Court justices get the final replay review. The power of review is the power to overturn.
In Washington, as in every other state, the same is true of the Washington Supreme Court. This is what happened in State v. Taylor, decided earlier this week.
I addressed the Court of Appeals' decision in Taylor in an earlier blog, but it's helpful to summarize the factual background before turning to the high court's opinion.
Taylor violates the law one too many times
In 2016, Brendan Taylor assaulted his girlfriend was convicted of a domestic violence offense. As a result of this conviction, the Kittitas County Superior Court issued a domestic violence no-contact order. The order prohibited Taylor from contacting Anna, ordered him to stay at least 1,000 feet away from her, and of course prohibited him from physically harming her.
Taylor ignored the order; in fact, both of them ignored the order because Taylor and Anna resumed living together. But less than a week after the superior court issued the NCO, Taylor allegedly beat her up again.
The State charged Taylor with felony violation of a no-contact order, a class C felony carrying a maximum of 5 years in prison. To prove a felony violation, the State had to prove three basic elements: (1) a no-contact order between Taylor and Anna; (2) Taylor knew about the order; (3) Taylor violated the order; (4) Taylor violated the order by assaulting Anna.
Taylor requested a jury trial. Before trial, he offered to stipulate that he knew about the NCO, so therefore, he argued, the State should not be able to introduce the NCO into evidence. The State objected, stating that it refused to accept Taylor's stipulation. The trial court sided with the State.
After being found guilty, Taylor appealed. The Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, holding that the trial judge did not have a lawful basis for not accepting the stipulation.
Then the State appealed, and now we get to the Washington Supreme Court.
But first … some legal terminology.
What is a stipulation?
A stipulation is a concession. By stipulating to an alleged fact, the defendant concedes that it's true. With a stipulation, the government doesn't have to prove the fact and (maybe more importantly), the defendant doesn't get to disprove the fact. A stipulation is the legal equivalent of waiving the white flag.
As a general rule, the State does not have to accept a defendant's offer to stipulate to an element of the crime, unless refusing to accept would result in unfair prejudice to the defendant.
What is unfair prejudice? By law, the State has to prove the defendant's guilt, which means putting as much prejudicial evidence as possible in front of the jury. That's, of course, not unfair prejudice. Unfair prejudice means that the “danger of unfair prejudice would substantially outweigh its probative value.” This language comes directly from ER 403, one of the most important rules of evidence in Washington.
Consider this example. Jane Smith is charged with DUI. At trial, she claims she wasn't drinking. Jane Smith has 10 prior DUI convictions. Is this evidence relevant? Yes, it show's she probably lying. But no reasonable jury is going to carefully review the facts in this particular case and give Jane any benefit of the doubt if the State tells the jury about her DUI history. In other words, evidence is unfairly prejudicial if it's likely to produce an “emotional response” rather than a “rational response,” to paraphrase the Court.
The Supreme Court Speaks
As indicated, Taylor offered to stipulate that he knew about the order. In effect, he was willing to surrender on elements #1 and #2. For this reason, the Court of Appeals ruled that the NCO had no additional relevance beyond that which Taylor offered to stipulate.
The Court disagreed. The State gets to prove its case by the evidence of its choice. Without directly saying this, the Court basically said that because the State has the burden of proof, it gets to marshal whatever evidence it can to make its case to a jury. In other words, the government gets to prove its case with “full evidentiary force.”
A written NCO has lots of evidentiary value, the Court noted. It contains the date on which the trial court entered the order, the expiration date, the name of the protected party, the name of the defendant, the specific restrictions on contact, and a signature indicating that the defendant knows about the order.
Taylor offered to stipulate that he knew about his NCO, but that was the extent of his stipulation. He didn't offer to stipulate to the specific restrictions of the order that Taylor allegedly violated in this case, a crucial issue in a felony prosecution. Therefore, excluding the NCO, as the Court explained, “would allow Taylor to circumvent the full evidentiary force of the State's case.” In short, the written NCO had a lot of probative value.
Furthermore, the NCO had little prejudicial value. Unlike the hypothetical DUI example above, Taylor's NCO did not describe the facts underlying his prior conviction for assaulting Anna, so the order was not likely to produce an emotional response, but rather a rational response.
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, ruling that the State was right not to have accepted Taylor's stipulation, effectively reinstating Taylor's conviction.