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A key victory for Washingtonians’ right to recall

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on July 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
July 18, 2011 9:32 am

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The First Amendment and common sense prevailed Friday when the campaign to recall Dale Washam was freed from an arbitrary and crippling funding limit.

Washam has proven himself unfit for the office of Pierce County assessor-treasurer since he was elected in 2008. He has persecuted subordinates – incurring enormous legal claims against the county – and has used his position to pursue an obsessive vendetta against his predecessor.

His behavior has triggered four independent investigations, all of which found misconduct on his part. Washam must be removed before he causes more harm to the taxpayers and the department he supposedly runs.

But until Friday, the recall campaign led by Robin Farris of Puyallup had been hampered by an $800 state limit on individual donations that applies not only to cash contributions but also to volunteer professional services.

The state Public Disclosure Commission has fined Farris for accepting $20,000 worth of donated legal help from two public-spirited lawyers. The $800 ceiling on donations has also prevented her campaign from deploying enough petition-gatherers to cover the geographic immensity of Pierce County.

Thanks to U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan, the campaign is rid of that shackle. In response to a lawsuit by recall supporters, the judge issued an emergency injunction that knocks the lid off donations to their campaign. (Disclosure: The News Tribune is likely to benefit from the campaign’s advertising.)

Bryan’s logic was simple: A recall is not the same animal as a candidate election. A campaign finance restriction that applies to candidates may amount to a First Amendment violation in the case of a recall. In this case, it clearly does.

Washington law allows unrestricted donations to ballot measures but imposes tight curbs on individual donations to people running for office. The idea is that financial support for legislation-by-initiative amounts to constitutionally protected political speech, while unlimited donations to candidates are an invitation to corruption.

As Bryan pointed out, a recall is neither a ballot measure nor a campaign for office, but it’s close enough to the former to warrant constitutional protection.

The Public Disclosure Commission claimed that larger contributions could corrupt the recall – if, for example, a candidate for office bankrolled the removal of the incumbent.

But in Washington, that is extremely unlikely. Officials can’t be recalled in this state on frivolous or malicious grounds; efforts to remove them are closely reviewed by the courts. In this case, Washam’s appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court and was denied unanimously.

A Pierce County recall also faces a formidable signature requirement: 25 percent of the number of registered voters in the election that put the targeted official in office. That alone makes it highly unlikely that a few wealthy troublemakers could put one over on the public.

Bryan’s injunction is a relief. The movement to unseat Washam is probably the most necessary recall campaign the state has seen in decades. It shouldn’t be hobbled by a rule that curtails Washingtonians’ right to recall under the state constitution and their right to political expression under the U.S. Constitution.

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