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Tag: Washington supreme court

Feb.
28th

Legislature decides taxes; voters decide Legislature

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Washington does three kinds of democracy: direct, representative and constitutional. Direct democracy came up short in Thursday’s state Supreme Court ruling on taxes; the other two came out ahead.

Several times since 1993, voters have approved initiatives that require a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature to approve new taxes without a vote of the people. Nearly 64 percent of the electorate went for the last two initiatives, in 2012 and 2010. The 2012 version, I-1185, carried with nearly 1.9 million votes.

This is a partisan issue in the Legislature, where most Democrats want the latitude to collect more taxes for education, social services and public payrolls. Among Washington Republicans, opposition to taxes appears to have become the only unifying principle.

Things don’t break down so neatly in the electorate itself. Washington doesn’t have 1.9 million Republicans. Most independents, presumably, and a lot of Democrats have been voting for those supermajority initiatives. Washingtonians seem quite content to elect Democrats majorities to the House and Senate; they just don’t want to give them any spending money.

Washingtonians won’t be able to have it both ways under the high court’s 6-3 ruling.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Susan Owens, argued that the framers of the Washington Constitution knew what they were doing when they required supermajorities for some decisions – such as overriding a governor’s veto – but simple majorities for others.

If you take the logic of extra-constitutional supermajorities far enough, a problem becomes obvious. What’s to stop, for example, an initiative from demanding a three-quarters majority before taxes can be enacted? Four-fifths?

An initiative could conceivably prevent the Legislature from doing anything at all about taxation – which happens to be one of its core constitutional responsibilities.
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July
7th

For the Washington Supreme Court: Gonzalez, Owens, Ladenburg

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

The judiciary is the quietest branch of government. That can make it tough for voters to size up candidates for crucially important positions on the bench.

In Washington, D.C., most people probably wouldn’t recognize Chief Justice John Roberts walking by on the sidewalk. That’s doubly or triply true of members of Washington’s Supreme Court, whose doings are little noticed except when rare landmark decisions – like the January ruling on public school funding – hit the news.

Voters face three choices for the high court in the Aug. 7 election. It’s a little misleading to call this a primary, because primaries lead to runoffs – yet any one of these three contests could be decided in August.

Under judicial election laws, a Supreme Court candidate who wins a majority in the primary takes home the gold. The “primary” then amounts to the final. Serious voters will want to look at these races closely.

We hope they’ll look particularly closely at the contest for Position 8, which pits Justice Steve Gonzalez against Bruce Danielson.

Gonzalez, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year by Gov. Chris Gregoire, is superbly qualified. A graduate of Berkeley School of Law, he has been a prosecutor for the City of Seattle and the U.S. Justice Department. He served on the King County Superior Court for 10 years before his appointment.

Danielson is not remotely a match.

In this case, the endorsements say it all. Roughly 250 judges across the state support Gonzalez, including current and retired Supreme Court justices, superior and district court judges, magistrates and court commissioners.

Tellingly, at least 10 Kitsap County judges have lent their names to Gonzalez’s campaign. Danielson practices law in Kitsap County and has unsuccessfully run for the bench there. The county’s judges presumably know him well. Enough said.

In the race for Position 2, 12-year incumbent Susan Owens faces challenges from Douglas McQuaid and Scott Stafne, who practice in Seattle and Arlington, respectively.
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Jan.
7th

Supreme court opinions don’t fund public schools

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Washington’s schoolchildren won a moral victory and not much else Thursday when the state supreme court ruled that the Legislature has been stiffing public education.

The court was stating the obvious. The Washington Constitution declares that lawmakers’ “paramount duty” is to give “ample provision” to its public schools. If the Legislature were actually doing that, the state’s school boards wouldn’t be turning to local voters every few years, hat in hand, for money to buy textbooks and keep schools from rotting.

Voters will see yet another round of maintenance and operations levy requests on their ballots Feb. 14. Those levies don’t pay for frivolities – they pay for basics the state ought to be paying for instead.

But the high court didn’t solve the problem; it doesn’t have the power to. It cannot rewrite the state budget nor can it order lawmakers to raise taxes for public education. Nor can it order voters to approve those taxes.

Nevertheless, seven of the justices mandated that the Legislature deliver that “ample provision” by 2018. Writing for the majority, Justice Debra Stephens warned that “the court cannot stand idly by as the Legislature makes unfulfilled promises for reform” and that it “intends to remain diligent” and “retain jurisdiction over the case.”

What she didn’t say was how those words would translate into more money. They are more likely to demonstrate the court’s impotence. Chief Justice Barbara Madsen was far more realistic in arguing that the court had spelled out the law and must leave the rest to the lawmakers.
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