This morning, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously found the State of Washington – and more specifically, the State Legislature – in contempt for failing to comply with its earlier rulings in the McCleary case, which found that the state is not fulfilling its paramount duty under Article IX to make ample provision for the education of all youth residing within Washington’s borders.
In a five-page order, the Court reprimanded lawmakers for not making enough progress towards fully funding the state’s public schools during the past two sessions, which featured a divided Legislature. Said the Court:
The State has suggested throughout these proceedings that the court may be approaching its constitutional bounds and entering into political and policy matters reserved to the legislature.
But as the court has repeatedly stated, it does not wish to dictate the means by which the legislature carries out its constitutional responsibility or otherwise directly involve itself in the choices and trade-offs that are uniquely within the legislature’s purview.
Rather, the court has fulfilled its constitutional role to determine whether the State is violating constitutional commands, and having held that it is, the court has issued orders within its authority directing the State to remedy its violation, deferring to the legislature to determine the details.
These orders are not advisory or designed only to get the legislature’s “attention”; the court expects them to be obeyed even though they are directed to a coordinate branch of government.
When the orders are not followed, contempt is the lawful and proper means of enforcement in the orderly administration of justice.
Despite finding lawmakers to be in contempt of its January order requiring that a plan for compliance be submitted by April 30th, 2014, the Court said it would wait to impose sanctions until after the 2015 legislative session, to give the Legislature one final chance to make progress on its own.
The question remains whether sanctions are immediately warranted. The State has assured the court that education funding is the legislature’s top priority and that the legislature is determined to (and the State expects it to) take meaningful action in the 2015 budget session. In the interest of comity and continuing dialogue between the branches of government, the court accepts the State’s assurances that it will be compliant by the end of the 2015 session.
Thus, the court will not presently impose sanctions or other remedial measures, and will provide the State the opportunity to purge the contempt during the 2015 legislative session by complying with the court’s order. If the contempt is not purged by adjournment of the 2015 legislature, the court will reconvene and impose sanctions or other remedial measures.
In a statement issued after the release of the order, Governor Jay Inslee acknowledged that there is much work to be done to ensure that Washington’s youth are getting the education they deserve.
“Today, the state of Washington has been held in contempt for failing to provide the Supreme Court with the education funding plan it has ordered,” said Inslee. “This unprecedented action by the Supreme Court is a critical moment in our history. No one should be surprised, yet no one should minimize the court’s order.”
“I urged lawmakers to act this year and agreed with the Court that we must do more to adequately fund education, which I believe is both a constitutional and moral obligation. The Legislature now must act before it adjourns next year or face the yet to be determined sanctions,” the Governor added.
“If we are to succeed now, we will need the help of everyone in Washington State, not just one hundred and forty-seven lawmakers, as we rise to the challenge to avoid the court’s pending sanctions. My budget team has been hard at work crafting a plan to submit to the 2015 Legislature. I look forward to input from all Washingtonians and, most importantly, action from the Legislature.”
The Legislature has proved itself to be very adept at speedily providing Boeing with tax breaks, but when it comes to funding education and other vital public services, lawmakers have done little more than repeatedly backfill and procrastinate.
In November of 2007, the Supreme Court did lawmakers and Governor Gregoire a big favor by striking down Tim Eyman’s Initiative 747 as unconstitutional. I-747, enacted in 2007, set artificial restrictions on property taxes which had been (and still are) slowly choking the life out of many of Washington’s public services.
Gregoire’s response to the Court’s ruling was to ask the Legislature to reinstate the initiative in a one-day special session, instead of pursuing real tax reform. A major opportunity was wasted, and to this day, the Legislature has simply left I-747 in place. Promises to take up tax reform later were not kept, just as we had foreseen.
The phrase actions speak louder than words has appeared many times in the ten plus year history of this publication, the Cascadia Advocate, and that is because it is the standard by which we at NPI hold our elected leaders accountable. Unlike the Seattle Times editorial board, which only offers lip service and platitudes for education, we at NPI are all about the action. Actions are what matter to us.
We can see from our actions as a state that we have deliberately and repeatedly chosen not to abide by the plan of government our founders gave us.
Opportunities to tackle tax reform have been wasted. Tough fiscal decisions have been put off again and again in favor of budgets loaded with Band-Aids. Recent proposals to put more money into public education and improve our schools have been rejected, both by legislators and citizens, while unconstitutional schemes promoted by Tim Eyman to prevent the Legislature from democratically raising revenue have passed on several occasions.
These and other choices that we have made to date are unacceptable.
What the Court said in McCleary, what it said in League of Education Voters, and what it is saying again in its order today is that we have a duty to live by our Constitution as a people. We cannot ignore our obligations, which were established by our ancestors to ensure that future generations of Washingtonians honor the progressive values upon which our state was founded.
There is a reason why every person elected to the Washington State Legislature, the Washington State executive department, or the Washington State Supreme Court is required to swear or affirm an oath to support the Washington and United States Constitutions prior to assuming office. It’s because these documents spell out our rights and responsibilities as citizens of this country and state.
Our plan of government is our highest law. It protects majority rule and minority rights. It calls for free elections. It demands that we not shirk from taking care of each other. It has served us well since statehood.
The Supreme Court is doing its job by upholding the Constitution and insisting that public schools be funded, so that Washington’s youth receive the education they’re supposed to. Now it’s time for lawmakers – including the people of Washington, in their capacity as citizen lawmakers – to step up and do their jobs.
If significant, substantial, and meaningful progress is not made within the next six months, the Court ought to begin imposing sanctions. There needs to be consequences for further inaction and procrastination.