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Washington Supreme Court upholds validity of private liquor initiative I-1183

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on May 31, 2012 at 8:26 am |
May 31, 2012 10:18 am

In a split decision released the day before Initiative 1183 was to take full effect, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that opponents of the measure failed to overcome the presumption that laws and initiatives are constitutional.

“We hold that appellants have not overcome the presumption that the initiative is constitutional, and therefore we affirm summary judgment in favor of the State and intervenors,” wrote the court’s newest Justice Steven Gonzalez for the majority (see decision below).

“… given the State’s continued recognition of the connection between liquor regulation, public safety, and revenue generation, we find that appellants have not established that I-1183′s public safety earmark is the result of logrolling, rather than the product of permissible law making,” Gonzalez wrote.

Opponents also argued that the measure was misleading because its title referred to new fees when the new assessments on distributors and retailers were, in fact, taxes.

Gonzalez rejected this as well.

“The phrase “license fees based on sales” is sufficient to indicate to an inquiring mind the scope and purpose of that provision of I-1183. The challenged portion of I-1183′s ballot title is not palpably misleading or false.”

Joining Gonzalez in the majority opinion were Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Debra Stephens, Susan Owens and James Johnson.

The dissent was written by Justice Charlie Wiggins and signed by Justices Mary Fairhurst and Charles Johnson. It concludes that the initiative violated the single subject clause of the state constitution. Those three agreed with all arguments made against I-1183.

“An initiative can impose new taxes, but the ballot title cannot misleadingly imply that it does not,” Wiggins wrote. “Likewise, earmarking a portion of the new tax revenue for public safety is not inherently problematic, but article II, section 19 precludes combining a substantive liquor privatization law with an earmark that has no rational relation to liquor privatization and may have been included only to win votes…
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“This case demonstrates precisely why our founding fathers included article II, section 19 in our constitution: so that laws are passed fairly, honestly, and on their individual merits,” Wiggins wrote. “Article II, section 19 holds our lawmakers to exacting standards to ensure that legislation is honestly come-by; we must hold citizen and corporate legislators to no less.

“This initiative would violate the constitution if our legislature had passed it, and it is equally unconstitutional as an initiative of the people.”

Wiggins also makes a reference to Costco, the giant retailer that bankrolled I-1183.

“When citizens legislate through the initiative process, they are held to the same standards as our elected lawmakers. When corporations legislate by initiative, we must also hold them to those same standards.”

Justice Tom Chambers, in a partial concurrence and partial dissent, said he thinks the initiative violates the requirement that the subject accurately reflect the content of the measure “because a reference to “license fees based on sales” in the initiative title is insufficient to alert voters to the fact that the bill contains a new tax.”

But Chambers wrote that the iniitiative does not violate the constitution’s single subject rule because “there is a rational unity between liquor regulation and public safety and that the appellants’ other arguments asserting a violation of article II, section 19′s single-subject rule are meritless.”

Still, Chambers wrote that the problems with the title of the measure are enough to invalidate the entire measure. That makes the final tally of the court 5-4 in favor of upholding the constitutionality of I-1183.

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