A lawsuit backed by con artist Tim Eyman and Republican state legislators that sought to sabotage Sound Transit’s voter-approved Phase III system expansion plan ended in failure this morning when the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the statute granting the agency the authority to levy motor vehicle excise taxes for light rail, express bus, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.
The plaintiffs in the case — a group of taxpayers represented by right wing attorneys Joel Ard and David DeWolf — had argued that Sound Transit’s MVET was unconstitutional because the law that created it — RCW 81.104.160(1) — did not set forth at full length either the original 1996 depreciation schedule for valuing motor vehicles or the more recent 2006 depreciation schedule.
The Court disagreed.
“We hold RCW 81.104.160(1) is constitutional under article II, section 37,” opined Justice Susan Owens, writing for a seven-member majority of the Court.
“It is readily ascertainable from the words of the statute alone when which depreciation schedule will apply, and the statute properly adopts both schedules by reference. Furthermore, the MVET statute does not render any other existing statutes erroneous because it does not require any reader to conduct research for unreferenced statutes to understand the rights impacted by the MVET statute itself,” Owens concluded. The ruling affirms a prior Superior Court decision.
Article II, Section 37 of the Constitution states that “[n]o act shall ever be revised or amended by mere reference to its title, but the act revised or the section amended shall be set forth at full length.” This is the provision that the plaintiffs argued that the Legislature violated when it adopted a transportation package that gave Sound Transit the ability to levy a higher motor vehicle excise tax.
“To determine whether a statute violates article II, section 37, the first question we must answer is whether the statute is a ”complete act,’ such that the rights or duties under the statute can be understood without referring to another statute;complete acts that adopt other statutes by reference satisfy this question under article II, section 37,” Owens’ opinion explains.
“The second question we answer is whether ”a straightforward determination of the scope of rights or duties under the existing statutes [would] be rendered erroneous by the new enactment,’ ” the opinion goes on to add.
With regards to the first question, the majority reasoned:
“The MVET statute specifically states in which circumstance each depreciation schedule will apply. It does not matter if the legislature set forth two depreciation schedules for different circumstances and made the current depreciation schedule inapplicable for a period of time because it remains clear to the reader when each depreciation schedule will apply, and that is what article II, section 37 requires. Because the legislature clearly laid out when each schedule will apply, there is no confusion or ambiguity arising from the text of the statute itself.”
And with regards to the second question, the majority reasoned:
“The MVET statute uses the same language, indicating the former depreciation schedule will be used for Sound Transit’s bond contracts ‘notwithstanding’ the current RCW chapter that includes the current depreciation schedule”
“Therefore, the MVET statute’s effect on other statutes is clear, and it does not render a straightforward determination of the scope of rights or duties under any other existing statutes erroneous.”
The majority also offered a quick primer on the purpose of Article II, Section 37:
“Article II, Section 37 is intended to protect the legislature and the public against fraud and deception. By referencing external sources, the legislature is avoiding fraud and deception — it is informing readers of the statute what external sources apply to the statute and their overall effect. To bar reference to external sources in statutes [which the plaintiffs had argued was in inappropriate] would unnecessarily restrict and burden the legislature’s role in drafting statutes.”
Two members of the Court — Chief Justice Debra Stephens and Associate Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud — dissented. (Perhaps not coincidentally, McCloud and Stephens also sided against the coalition of plaintiffs seeking to overturn Tim Eyman’s I‑976 as unconstitutional a couple of months ago.)
McCloud’s dissenting opinion argues:
“The effects of the MVET statute before us are scattered not only across the code but also across a complicated 24-year history. And the MVET statute renders another enactment of our legislature — the current depreciation schedule— inoperative without ever referencing it, much less setting it forth ‘at full length.’ The MVET statute therefore violates the constitutional mandate designed to provide clarity to the legislative process. I respectfully dissent.”
The opinion in its entirety can be read below:Supreme Court’s decision in Black v. Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority
This is a difficult case to explain in a blog post, because it concerns the acceptable use of reference statutes, which is a legal concept that many people may not be familiar with. If you have the time, the opinion above is a pretty good read.
The Court’s decision means that Black’s lawsuit is at an end and another threat to Sound Transit 3 has been neutralized. The agency has a rather sterling record of winning cases in the Supreme Court, which is a testament to the legal acumen of its chief counsel, Desmond Brown, and the attorneys who work with Brown.
There remains the threat of Tim Eyman’s I‑976, which was mostly upheld yesterday in a decision handed down by Judge Marshall Ferguson of the King County Superior Court. Ferguson has opted to defer ruling on two issues for the time being and granted leave to the parties to conduct discovery and re-present arguments on those two issues. After that happens, the legal challenge against I‑976 is likely to land in the Washington State Supreme Court.