NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, August 27th, 2021

Judge strikes Compassion Seattle’s Charter Amendment 29 from November ballot

Bar­ring a suc­cess­ful appeal — and it does­n’t sound like there will be one — peo­ple in Seat­tle will not be get­ting a chance to vote on a char­ter amend­ment that would alter the city’s plan of gov­ern­ment to add new direc­tives regard­ing the city’s oblig­a­tions with respect to home­less­ness this autumn.

That’s because King Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge Cather­ine Shaf­fer ruled this after­noon that Char­ter Amend­ment 29 — backed by a coali­tion dubbed Com­pas­sion Seat­tle — exceeds the scope of the local ini­tia­tive pow­er and there­fore is not a prop­er­ly craft­ed change to the city’s plan of government.

“It can­not move for­ward,” Shaf­fer decreed in a rul­ing from the bench.

(A writ­ten opin­ion is expect­ed by ear­ly next week.)

Shaf­fer­’s rul­ing came in response to a law­suit filed ear­li­er this month by the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, the Tran­sit Rid­ers Union, and the Seattle/King Coun­ty Coali­tion on Home­less­ness, which con­tend­ed that CA 29 ought to be removed from the city­wide ballot.

In a state­ment, Com­pas­sion Seat­tle indi­cat­ed it did not plan to appeal to the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court, though it did­n’t like Shaf­fer­’s ruling.

“While we are grat­i­fied that Judge Shaf­fer said that she would have vot­ed for Char­ter Amend­ment 29 if giv­en that option, we strong­ly dis­agree with her rul­ing today deny­ing Seat­tle vot­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have their voic­es heard on the num­ber one issue fac­ing our city,” the state­ment said.

“This rul­ing means the only way the pub­lic can change the city’s cur­rent approach to home­less­ness is to change who is in charge at city hall. An appeal of the judge’s rul­ing would not hap­pen in time for the election.”

“How­ev­er, we urge the pub­lic not to give up the fight. We can still make our voic­es heard in the elec­tions for May­or, City Coun­cil, and City Attor­ney. In each race, the dif­fer­ence between the can­di­dates is defined by who sup­ports what the Char­ter Amend­ment was attempt­ing to accom­plish and who does not.”

NPI’s July 2021 sur­vey of Seat­tle vot­ers found strong sup­port for Char­ter Amend­ment 29, with 61% of like­ly August 2021 vot­ers express­ing sup­port for the mea­sure and just 23% opposed. Those num­bers sug­gest­ed that Com­pas­sion Seat­tle was in a strong posi­tion head­ing into the autumn campaign.

But now there won’t be a cam­paign at all.

House Our Neigh­bors, the oppo­si­tion coali­tion, cel­e­brat­ed the demise of Char­ter Amend­ment 29 on social net­work­ing plat­forms, delight­ed­ly tweet­ing “No appeal, baby!” and retweet­ing a brief mes­sage of con­grat­u­la­tions from city coun­cil can­di­date Nikki­ta Oliv­er, a vocal oppo­nent of Char­ter Amend­ment 29.

House Our Neigh­bors had been gear­ing up to mount a cred­i­ble no cam­paign that faced the dif­fi­cul­ty of bring­ing sup­port for CA 29 down from the six­ties (as mea­sured by our July polling) to under fifty per­cent. But now they won’t have to. Vic­to­ry has come ear­ly with Judge Shaf­fer­’s ruling.

When the law­suit was filed, I assessed that its chances of suc­cess were “good to excel­lent” because the plain­tiffs had case law on their side.

From my post two weeks ago:

Hav­ing close­ly fol­lowed lit­i­ga­tion sur­round­ing bal­lot mea­sures in Wash­ing­ton for over twen­ty years, I rate the plain­tiffs’ chances of get­ting a favor­able ver­dict as good to excel­lent. They have prece­dent work­ing for them. I have no doubt Com­pas­sion Seat­tle will be well rep­re­sent­ed, and will make the best, most effec­tive argu­ments they can, but the body of case law is sim­ply not on their side.

“Local ini­tia­tives,” I explained, “often fall vic­tim to scope chal­lenges, whether those are brought by gov­ern­ments or mea­sure opponents.”

That’s exact­ly what hap­pened here.

Oth­er observers had a very dif­fer­ent reac­tion to the fil­ing of the law­suit against Char­ter Amend­ment 29, sug­gest­ing that it was a longshot.

Kevin Schofield, who writes Seat­tle City Coun­cil (SCC) Insight and close­ly tracks city pol­i­tics, was not impressed with the plain­tiffs’ argu­ments. After exam­in­ing the dif­fer­ent prongs of the law­suit, Schofield con­clud­ed in an August 11th post: “In all, most of the legal argu­ments laid out by the plain­tiffs seem weak.”

Miss­ing from Schofield­’s analy­sis, how­ev­er, was a dis­cus­sion of the rel­e­vant case law in Wash­ing­ton State con­cern­ing local ini­tia­tives. It was pre­cise­ly that body of case law that led me to draw the oppo­site conclusion.

As many Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate read­ers like­ly know, in any legal chal­lenge, case law is of vital impor­tance, because courts fol­low the doc­trine of stare deci­sis, which basi­cal­ly means to stick with prece­dent. (Stare deci­sis is Latin for “to stand in the-things-that-have-been-decid­ed”). In this law­suit, the plain­tiffs had plen­ty of exam­ples they could cite for Judge Shaf­fer of oth­er mea­sures being thrown off the bal­lot because they exceed­ed the scope of the local ini­tia­tive power.

All they had to do to get a favor­able rul­ing was con­vince the judge that CA 29 ran afoul of some of the same lim­i­ta­tions that have led to the demise of so many oth­er local mea­sures around the state… and they were able to do that. The local ini­tia­tive pow­er is much, much nar­row­er than the statewide ini­tia­tive pow­er, so it’s not dif­fi­cult to end up with prob­lem­at­ic pro­vi­sions in a mea­sure like CA 29.

While courts gen­er­al­ly don’t enter­tain pre­elec­tion legal chal­lenges to statewide ini­tia­tives, they will read­i­ly inval­i­date a local ini­tia­tive on scope grounds.

When Judge Shaf­fer­’s writ­ten rul­ing is avail­able, I will update this post with an embed­ded copy of the deci­sion. That’s when we’ll for­mal­ly get her rationale.

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