City and county councilors are not the arbiters of what is and what is not constitutional. But that has not prevented Woodland city councilors and Cowlitz County commissioners from standing up for what they imagine the Constitution to be.
Woodland officials recently passed a formal declaration opposing state-mandated COVID-19 vaccine requirements for government workers. The resolution pledged that vaccinations would not be required for city employees and repeatedly questioned the constitutionality of mandates.
Meanwhile, Cowlitz County commissioners passed resolutions stating the county will not require vaccines for certain county employees and saying they may pull funding from entities that require vaccinations. The county includes a portion of Woodland, which straddles the line between Cowlitz and Clark counties.
Indeed, elected officials should be involved in decisions regarding policies for municipal workers. But the rhetoric surrounding the decisions reflects the stridency that has allowed the coronavirus pandemic to fester and expand.
On Aug. 31, Cowlitz County officials reported a 14-day rate of new COVID cases at 1,089 per 100,000 population; by comparison, Clark County’s most recently revealed a rate of 523 cases per 100,000 residents is its highest since the pandemic started.
“The issue is should we, as a free people, kneel down and submit to any mandate given by the governor as long as he claims it’s for the public welfare?,” asked City Councilor Dave Plaza. The resolution encourages legal action “to stop this horrendous civil rights violation.”
That kind of hyperbole has prevented this nation from effectively addressing the COVID outbreak. And it has no foundation in fact.
Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency orders routinely have been upheld by the courts, surviving more than a dozen legal challenges.
In one decision, a federal judge wrote that the plaintiffs did not “establish that the governor’s emergency proclamation is unreasonable, overly broad, or unequally applied. … It is not the court’s role to second-guess the reasoned public health decisions of other branches of government.”
Under our constitutional system, courts are the arbiters of which government actions are legal. Article IV, Section 1 of the state constitution reads: “The judicial power of the state shall be vested in a supreme court, superior courts, justices of the peace, and such inferior courts as the legislature may provide.”
Adhering to judicial review is a foundational aspect of American government, but that foundation is increasingly being attacked by critics who adhere to their own constitutional interpretation. Such an approach undermines our nation, our democracy and the structure of our society.
If a county council declared that property taxes were unconstitutional or ignored election laws or required every resident to purchase a gun, it would be overstepping its bounds. And the action would be no more defensible than unilaterally declaring the governor has violated the state or U.S. constitutions.
In 1803, when the U.S. Supreme Court established judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote it was the particular duty of the courts “to say what the law is.”
Until a court determines that Inslee’s orders have violated that law, officials at the city and county levels should avoid making such determinations for themselves — lest they undermine the constitutions they claim to revere.