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State Supreme Court says Tri-City judge got domestic violence ruling wrong

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled Judge Bruce Spanner made a mistake when he excluded a 2-year-old from his mother’s domestic violence protection order in June 2015.
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled Judge Bruce Spanner made a mistake when he excluded a 2-year-old from his mother’s domestic violence protection order in June 2015. Tri-City Herald

A Benton County Superior Court judge abused his discretion when he ruled against a mother who wanted her toddler included in a protection order against the boy’s father, the state’s highest court said Thursday.

The Washington State Supreme Court said Judge Bruce Spanner made a mistake when he excluded the 2-year-old from his mother’s domestic violence protection order in June 2015.

“It strains common sense to think that (the boy) was not somehow exposed to domestic violence given the facts of this case,” the court wrote.

Its 16-page supreme court ruling published Thursday was written by Justice Steven C. Gonzales and signed by all nine justices.

T)he trial court applied the wrong legal standard in reviewing the definition of ‘domestic’ violence’ and abused its discretion,” Gonzales wrote.

(T)he trial court applied the wrong legal standard in reviewing the definition of ‘domestic’ violence’ and abused its discretion.

Washington State Supreme Court

“(The case involved Esmeralda Rodriquez’s efforts to protect her son, Lazaro Zavala, from his father, Luis Daniel Zavala, under Washington’s 1991 Domestic Violence Protection Act.

Karla Carlisle, a Northwest Justice Project attorney who represented Rodriguez, said the decision affirms that violence in the home is damaging to children.

She said the courts have been slow to recognize the impact of domestic violence on kids, excluding them from protection orders. That drives victims to stay with their abusers to protect their children, she said.

“The Rodriguez decision is a total victory for children who are often left out,” she said.

Rodriguez and Zavala had an unquestionably violent relationship. Court documents indicate Zavala had a history of violence against Rodriguez and of threatening to harm their son, as well as her three older daughters from a prior relationship.

The Rodriguez decision is a total victory for children who are often left out.

Karla Carlisle, Northwest Justice Project

She sought the order after he came to her door at 2 a.m., yelling that he would break the windows if she didn’t let him inside. They were separated at the time and a restraining order was in effect.

She cracked open a door to tell him to leave, but he pushed his way in. He cornered and began choking her. She believed he was following through on prior threats to kill her, said the court documents.

In the struggled, she grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed Zavala in the stomach. Later, she requested a protection order for herself and all four children. She received temporary protective order, pending a hearing.

Zavala, who was still jailed, denied any abuse. Rodriguez, who had no legal training, represented herself.

Spanner signed the order to protect Rodriguez and her daughters, but not the boy, noting he was in another room at the time and did not feel threatened.

Because domestic violence includes the infliction of fear of harm between family members generally, the definition includes a mother’s fear of harm to her child by that child’s father. The language..is plain and unambiguous.

Washington State Supreme Court

Rodriguez appealed.

Last August, the state Court of Appeals upheld Spanner’s ruling, finding that someone seeking a domestic violence protection order may seek relief based on “fear of imminent harm to herself.”

It also noted that Rodriguez did not present scientific evidence at the original hearing that a child can suffer psychological and physical injury when domestic violence exists in the home. New arguments can’t be introduced on appeal, it noted.

But she appealed to the Supreme Court late last year.

“Because domestic violence includes the infliction of fear of harm between family members generally, the definition includes a mother’s fear of harm to her child by that child’s father. The language ... is plain and unambiguous,” the court ruled.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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