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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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