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Solidifying a plan spelled out during oral arguments last month, the California Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously reaffirmed trial judges’ authority to reconsider orders on their own motions. The court averted a potential clash with the state Legislature by reaching the decision without voiding two state statutes that appeared to limit judges’ power to correct their own errors. “Consistent with our common practice of construing statutes, when reasonable, to avoid difficult constitutional questions,” Justice Ming Chin wrote, “we interpret the statutes the way many courts of appeal have done — as imposing a limitation on the parties’ ability to file repetitive motions, but not on the court’s authority to reconsider its prior interim rulings on its own motion.” The outcome was no surprise given the way Chin had laid out his thoughts while questioning both sides’ attorneys during oral arguments on May 5. Philip Le Francois and Eric Herald initiated the suit in Santa Clara County by claiming that their former employer, Duet Technologies Inc., and three of its officers allegedly withheld more than $10 million in sales commissions. Superior Court Judge William Elfving denied a summary judgment motion filed by the company, but a year later a second motion was granted by Judge Robert Baines even though it contained the same evidence. San Jose’s 6th District Court of Appeal affirmed Baines last year, despite arguments by Le Francois and Herald’s attorneys that Baines had violated Code of Civil Procedure �� 437c(f)(2) and 1008, which essentially state that renewed motions are barred unless they involve new facts, circumstances or law. The 6th District ruled that the two statutes violated the separation-of-powers doctrine by interfering with a core judicial function — the constitutionally endowed power to reconsider motions. The Supreme Court refused to go that far on Thursday, instead treading a middle road by upholding judges’ inherent power to reconsider, but not declaring the statutes unconstitutional. The justices held that the statutes didn’t materially impair the courts’ core functions and actually served the purpose of constraining litigants who might try to file the same motion over and over. “Moreover, we see no hint that the Legislature wanted to hinder the courts’ ability to act rather than merely protect them from repetitive motions,” Chin wrote, “or that it intended, as one court phrased it, to ‘solve one set of problems by possibly creating another.’” While the ruling prevents litigants from filing a written motion to reconsider unless they’re based on new circumstances, it doesn’t prevent them from suggesting or requesting a court to take a second look. “To be fair to the parties,” Chin wrote, “if the court is seriously concerned that one of its prior interim rulings might have been erroneous, and thus that it might want to reconsider that ruling on its own motion — something we think will happen rather rarely — it should inform the parties of this concern, solicit briefing and hold a hearing.” The opinion remands the case back to the trial court, which is now free to reconsider its previous ruling on its own motion. In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Joyce Kennard argued that the lower court ruling should have been affirmed on the basis of harmless error. “Although the trial court here erred insofar as it purported to act on a party’s motion rather than on its own motion,” she wrote, “this procedural error does not affect the judgment’s validity.” Jon Zimmerman, a partner in San Jose’s Robinson & Wood who argued for Le Francois and Herald, praised the decision. “We think that it is the appropriate and accurate interpretation of the separation-of-powers doctrine in California,” he said. “And as a result of the ruling, the courts will now be free to hear cases where they believe prior rulings are an issue, but are not forced to revisit motions on a repetitive basis without cause.” Paul Fogel, a partner in Reed Smith’s San Francisco office who argued for Duet and its officers, said he wasn’t completely disappointed by the ruling, saying it lets the company go back and suggest that the judge reconsider his own motion. The justices “drew a line, and everybody has to live by that line,” Fogel said. “I just don’t agree with that line, and I look forward to how the trial courts are going to grapple with that line.” The ruling is Le Francois v. Goel, 05 C.D.O.S. 4929.

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