What's an emergency? Restoring people power

Seattle Times commentary


In the enthusiasm several years ago to approve the Mariner stadium an enthusiasm in which this page shared the Washington Supreme Court declared that the Legislature could slap the label "emergency" on just about any legislation. By doing so, it tore a hole in the state constitution.

According to the constitution, when the Legislature passes a law, the citizens have a right to get up a petition to repeal it. This is the referendum power. The exceptions, the constitution says, are laws "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, (or) support of the state government and its existing public institutions."

The law creating the baseball stadium was declared by the Legislature to be "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety."

Of course it was not, as everyone knew. But by pretending it was, the Legislature prevented a second referendum on the stadium. There had been a vote already, and the stadium had lost.

And so Seattle got a baseball stadium. It is a fine stadium and we are glad we have it, but the people ought to have their power of referendum back.

At the time they lost it, 1996, only two justices, Richard Guy and Richard Sanders, objected. A few weeks ago, professor Hugh Spitzer of the University of Washington School of Law said he had come to agree that the court ruling "gutted the power of referendum" and was wrong.

That is significant, because Spitzer had been on the other side.

Last Thursday, Justice Tom Chambers brought up the issue in a concurring opinion. "The critical question," he wrote, "is whether the Legislature has encroached upon the constitutional authority reserved to the people."

He argued that it had, and that only the court could restore it, by once again subjecting the Legislature's "emergencies" to intelligent scrutiny.

Chambers is right. On this matter, the court needs to assert itself.


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