Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Not Quite Ex Parte McCardle . . .

Gerwan Farming v. Agric. Labor Relations Board, No. F069896 (D5 May 9, 2016)

Interesting case that deals with when the Legislature can bypass the superior courts and provide for a direct review by an appellate court of an administrative decision. 

The United Farm Workers’ Union is in the midst of a collective bargaining conciliation process with a Farm Employer. The process is overseen by a state agency called the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. An Employee asks to attend, but not participate in, the conciliation process. The Board said no, however, and issued a policy decision that members of the public don’t have any right to attend these kinds of proceedings.

So the Employee sued in superior court, seeking declaratory relief permitting her to attend and declaring the policy void as against the rights of public access. But a statute addressing appeals of Board rules—Labor Code § 1164.9—says that only the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court have jurisdiction to review the actions of the Board. So the trial court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. Employee appeals.

Tucked somewhere in the hundred-plus pages of our bloated state Constitution is Article VI, § 10, which deals with the original jurisdiction of the various state courts. For some stuff—habeas corpus, mandamus, some other more obscure writs—all courts at all levels have original jurisdiction. This is what creates the weird state procedure where a convicted defendant can file an original state habeas petition before the state Supreme Court in the first instance. For any other cases, original jurisdiction lies only with the superior courts. The sole function of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court in these cases is to hear appeals of cases that originate in superior court. The Supreme Court has read Article VI, § 10 to mean that the Legislature doesn’t have the power to enact a statute that strips the superior court of jurisdiction in those cases.

That said, there are cases upholding statutes involving a direct appeal from an administrative agency to the Court of Appeal, bypassing the superior court. But all of these statutory regimes have something in common: They are arise out of Constitutional provisions that expressly or implicitly gave the Legislature plenary authority over certain subjects, notwithstanding limitations in other parts of the state constitution, including Article VI § 10. As the Court explains, “[e]ach decision upholding a statutory elimination of the superior courts original jurisdiction to review certain administrative decisions was premised explicitly on provisions in the Constitution empowering the Legislature to enact the statute in question.”

The problem in this case is that Labor Code § 1164.9 is not such a statute. In the absence of a constitutional basis to divest the superior court of original jurisdiction, § 1164.9 is unconstitutional. And since it was § 1164.9 that got in the way of the trial court, with that out of the way, nothing should have prevented the superior court from reaching the merits of the access issue.

Reversed and remanded.

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