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.

Andrew Villeneuve

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