OLYMPIA — Still stinging from a Supreme Court ruling last week that overturned tax-increase constraints on the Legislature, three Republican senators have introduced a bill seeking to cut the high court by four justices.
The measure, introduced Wednesday, would require a public meeting for the current nine justices to draw straws. The four that draw the shortest straws “shall be terminated and those judges shall not serve the remainder of their respective unexpired terms.”
Any savings to the state would be used to fund basic education. That section is a reference to the court’s order that the Legislature is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to pay for education in the state.
Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, of Spokane, insists it’s a serious bill, saying that as the Legislature looks to make cuts in other areas of state government, “why should the judiciary be exempt?”
Supreme Court justices currently make more than $164,000 a year. Baumgartner said that by reducing the court, you also reduce salaries that need to be paid to their clerks and other staffers.
“There’s a lot of school teachers you could hire with these salaries,” he said.
When asked about the drawing straws scenario, he said it was “simply an issue of making it fair.”
Sen. Doug Ericksen, of Ferndale, and Janea Holmquist Newbry, of Moses Lake, have signed on to the bill, as well.
In a 6-3 ruling last week, the court ruled that an initiative requiring a two-thirds requirement for tax increases was in conflict with the state constitution and that lawmakers and the people of Washington would need to pass a constitutional amendment in order to change from a simple majority to a supermajority.
It’s been estimated that the state needs about $4 billion to fulfill its constitutional promise to fully pay for basic education by 2018. The Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to show meaningful progress toward that goal during this session. The state also faces an estimated $975 million shortfall for the next biennium.
Baumgartner’s bill notes that originally, only five justices sat on the state Supreme Court, as written in the state constitution. In 1905, the Legislature permanently expanded the court to seven justices, and in 1909, it was increased to the present nine. Under his measure, the number of judges on the court could be done by a constitutional amendment — the same requirement the court said was necessary for a two-thirds requirement for tax increase votes.
To pass a constitutional amendment, two-thirds majority of the Legislature must give its approval and then a vote of the people.
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen isn’t worried that she’ll be drawing straws on the Supreme Court steps any time soon. Noting that only three justices come up for election at any time, and that all of the justices are in office until at least 2014, she said she’s not certain the bill doesn’t run afoul of the constitution.
“It certainly seems unlikely it could be done,” she said. “It just does not appear to me to be completely thought through, if it’s intended to be serious at all.”