This week’s rebuke of Gov. Jay Inslee by the state Supreme Court is not a matter of politics. It is an important example of the checks and balances that allow the American system of government to function.
On Wednesday, the court ruled 7-2 that Inslee had overstepped his veto authority in striking a sentence that appeared seven times in a 2019 transportation budget passed by the Legislature.
The sentence in question would have prevented the Department of Transportation from considering vehicle fuel type when it decided how to hand out grants for transit services. Lawmakers said the sentence would ensure transit agencies were not disqualified from receiving $200 million in grants offered through the state, even if those agencies were unable to make a quick transition to zero-emission vehicles.
The Legislature sued over the veto. The court ruled that while the governor has the authority to veto whole bills, sections of bills or whole appropriation items, he cannot excise parts of an appropriation item unless the Legislature has structured the measure in a way designed to circumvent a veto.
The decision could play a role in a controversy over line-item vetoes Inslee used this year. In May, he angered lawmakers of both parties by striking parts of a carbon-cap program and a bill on clean-fuels standards. The vetoes concerned language that said those bills would not take effect until the Legislature approved a new transportation-funding package — part of a “grand bargain” lawmakers struck to ensure the climate change measures had enough support to pass.
In his veto message for the clean-fuels bill, Inslee said lawmakers had structured the bill in a way to preclude him from vetoing portions of it — exactly the thing the state Supreme Court has warned lawmakers about.
Regardless of the outcome of that case, the idea of judicial review is essential to American democracy. After years of watching members of the Trump administration attempt to subvert democratic norms and ignore court rulings and subpoenas — both during and after Donald Trump’s presidency — we see that it is crucial for the structure of our national and state constitutions be steadfastly upheld.
As James Madison wrote about checks and balances in Federalist Paper No. 51, government’s “several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” He added, “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.”
At the federal level, judicial review was institutionalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Marbury v. Madison decision of 1803. The ruling established the duty of the courts to ensure that government is accountable to the law and that laws are constitutional. It also established the courts as a coequal branch in our three-pronged system of government. If one branch is weaker than the others, that system collapses.
State constitutions have adopted a similar system of checks and balances, recognizing its brilliance and importance.
Unlike the president, Washington’s governor does have line-item veto power — the ability to remove portions of a bill passed by the Legislature while still signing the bill. So do governors in 43 other states. But even that power comes with restrictions, as the state Supreme Court reminded Inslee this week.
It is all part of a system of checks and balances that is a foundation of American government.