One of the collateral impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an assessment of executive power. Such an examination is necessary, but it must be based on reason, facts and a desire for more effective and efficient government.
Alas, that was not the motivation behind an attempt to recall Gov. Jay Inslee in retaliation for his response to the pandemic. Instead, the effort was motivated by petulance and cynicism. Last week, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the charges against Inslee did not provide factually or legally sufficient grounds that would allow a recall campaign to move forward.
“Governor Inslee has used his discretion to navigate this pandemic, making difficult decisions in an effort to balance the health and safety of Washingtonians with their individual liberties,” Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the court. “While reasonable minds may disagree with the governor’s discretionary decisions, such disagreement is insufficient to support a recall.”
In Washington, disagreement is not adequate for the recall of an elected official. The state constitution says evidence must demonstrate an official has committed “an act or acts of malfeasance, or an act or acts of misfeasance while in office, or has violated the oath of office, or has been guilty of any two or more of the acts specified in the Constitution as grounds for recall.”
Limiting in-person gatherings or requiring masks in public or imposing an eviction moratorium fall short of that standard. Some of the loudest complaints about protective measures during the pandemic have come from people who appear to have only a passing familiarity with the law.
In spite of that, complaints about Inslee’s actions have highlighted the ongoing need to strengthen Washington’s system of checks and balances. Regardless of how one feels about Inslee’s emergency measures, it is reasonable to argue that the Legislature should have been more involved in the process.
Inslee sought input from health officials and other executives, but decisions about shutdowns and mask requirements, in the end, were made unilaterally. Washington residents likely were surprised to learn that a governor may indefinitely extend emergency orders at their own discretion.
Lawmakers this year made a tepid attempt to enhance the balance between the executive and legislative branches. Senate Bill 5909 would have allowed legislative leaders from both parties and both chambers to end an emergency order if the Legislature is not in session — as long as all four agree. The impotent bill did not come close to passage.
As The Columbian has written editorially: “Imagine, for a moment, if a governor decided that gun violence in the state is an emergency and declared an indefinite halt to all gun sales. Or if another governor decided that abortion was an emergency and closed reproductive health clinics. Either scenario is extreme and would invite numerous court challenges, but the absurd examples demonstrate the need to strengthen the checks and balances in state government. No governor of either party should have unfettered power.”
There is, indeed, good reason to place additional checks on the power of the governor. As the pandemic has demonstrated, emergency measures sometimes are necessary, but legislative approval should be required to extend those measures beyond a specified time — be it 60 or 90 or 180 days.
Focusing on that change would be more sensible and more impactful than specious efforts to recall a governor who was acting within his power.