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Jan. 28, 2022

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In Our View: Foes of Ruling Play Politics

The Columbian
Published:

Last week’s court ruling that Initiative 1366 is unconstitutional has, unfortunately, been viewed in many circles through politically colored glasses.

Reaction to Thursday’s decision by King County Superior Court Judge William Downing has focused upon the assertion that the measure would have been the wrong step at the wrong time for Washington and deserved to be overturned. Or, on the opposite side, that the court has acted politically and has overstepped its bounds in rejecting the will of the voters. The angle of the reaction often depends upon one’s political persuasion and, in either case, ignores the real issues involved. If the measure is unconstitutional, it’s unconstitutional — regardless of whether a commentator favored it to begin with.

Initiative 1366, proposed by anti-tax maven Tim Eyman and supported in November by 51.5 percent of voters, directed the Legislature to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that could codify two-thirds legislative approval for tax increases. If lawmakers did not agree to place an amendment in front of voters, the state sales tax would be reduced by 1 percentage point. Downing determined, among other problems with the measure, that “it is solely the province of the legislative branch of our representative government to ‘propose’ an amendment to the state constitution. That process is derailed by the pressure-wielding mechanism in this initiative which exceeds the scope of initiative power.”

In arguing editorially against the passage of I-1366 last year, The Columbian quoted former Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican: “This measure would empower those hard-core ideologues on each side, either the right wing or the left wing, because all they’ve got to do is get a third to block something.”

Yes, there are good reasons to believe that Initiative 1366 would be harmful to the state of Washington. And there are good reasons to believe that a two-thirds requirement for raising taxes would unduly hamper the ability of legislators to effectively do their jobs.

Yet it is easy to empathize with the frustration of voters, who now have passed a two-thirds provision on six occasions only to have it overturned by the Legislature or the courts. Along the way, it is essential that such frustration — or, on the other side, such opposition to I-1366 — not play a role in court decisions. Since the founding of the United States, the notion of an independent court has been crucial to our constitutional system of government. As former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said: “The framers of the Constitution were so clear in the Federalist Papers and elsewhere that they felt an independent judiciary was critical to the success of the nation.”

Many lawmakers and citizens in Washington, particularly conservatives, have called into question the independence of the judiciary in this state. Whether it is the Supreme Court’s oversight of school funding, or a ruling on charter schools, or now a district court ruling on Initiative 1366, detractors see politics in every decision. Following last week’s ruling, Rep. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said: “I wasn’t sent to Olympia to represent some liberal King County judge,” a sentiment shared by others.

We should expect better from our representatives. Whether or not they agree with a court ruling, their job is to follow it, not denigrate the entire system. The state Supreme Court likely will have the final say on I-1366; if the justices say the measure is unconstitutional, then it’s unconstitutional.

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