John Laird: Passion of the people must not obliterate the rule of law

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

Beware the fickle supermajority requirement. It can be your BFF one moment, then that second F — "forever" — vanishes, and suddenly a mere one-third of the voters can ruin your life.

Actually, though, the supermajority requirement never changes. It's neither conservative nor liberal. It's just math. The concept is as immutable as algebra. What changes is a person's perspective.

The last day of February was the last day that only 40 percent of legislators (plus one) could block a tax increase in Washington. That was the day our state Supreme Court ruled that requiring supermajority approval for tax increases was unconstitutional.

As expected, the six justices in the majority caught all kinds of hell for ignoring the will of the people. After all, the people first implemented this rule 20 years ago, and voters have affirmed it four times since. How dare the court defy the people? Boy, howdy, it's a good thing we elect Supreme Court justices in this state, 'cause we're gonna run 'em off the bench in the next election, complainers fumed.

Lost in all their rage was the simple fact that the court never said the supermajority requirement is good or bad. As Justice Susan Owens wrote, the ruling "is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority … ." The court simply deemed the requirement to be unconstitutional, adding that, if the people want to change the law, "they must do so through constitutional amendment, not through legislation."

Unlike many of the pitchfork pounders, I'm glad we have courts to tell us when we act against the rule of law, and without the courts passing judgment on our actions and even instructing us on how to legalize those actions.

As for tax increases, an editorial in The Herald in Everett explained that, while the two-thirds rule "sounded like an effective stick to batter lawmakers into not raising taxes," it carried unintended consequences. We found "corporations preserving their loopholes while lawmakers gave state universities the OK to hike tuition," by double-digit percentages over multiple years. Lo, how the legislators smiled warmly at cash-strapped parents of college students while boasting about not raising their taxes.

The Herald also quoted state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish: "On the larger question of democracy, (the court ruling) affirms the principle of one person one vote. The U.S. Senate, with filibuster rules, and other governments have proven that supermajority rules harm a people's ability to govern themselves."

Math never fluctuates

My feelings about requiring a supermajority approval depend on the circumstances. If we're closing public golf courses, I say two-thirds approval is needed, by all means. But if we're building public golf courses, simple majority approval ought to do it. And I suspect your feelings about this rule also fluctuate a bit. But none of our feelings will change (1) the mathematical rigidity of the supermajority or (2) the fact that, in this case, it's unconstitutional according to the court. So let's not make this more than it is.

Throughout this boisterous debate over the two-thirds requirement, Jim Moeller tried to keep all of us focused on the goal: determining the constitutionality of it all. It took a lot of courage for the Democratic state rep from Vancouver to stand tall against the wrath of people who called him everything from heretic to blasphemer. But on that last day of February, the state Supreme Court made it clear: On this one issue, Moeller was right all along, and his critics were wrong.

Moeller's vindication and elevation to higher relevance on this issue will neither subdue his detractors nor reduce their numbers. But the court has yanked all of us back to where we belong: acting within the law, enlightened now on how to change that law.

Ah, but here's where things get tricky. Changing the law (amending the state constitution) requires two-thirds approval of each legislative chamber. Suddenly, those who idolized the supermajority requirement now find it to be a giant pain in the caucus.