A divided state Supreme Court on Friday upheld a $320 million financing package to build a new Seattle Mariners ballpark, saying the Legislature neither misused public money nor wrongly denied the public a vote.
The 1995 Legislature, which passed the financing package in a special session after Mariners owners threatened to quit Seattle without it, “had before it considerable evidence that the Stadium Act would promote the general welfare of the citizenry, and that the state was faced with an emergency which made it necessary for the act to take effect immediately.”
The 6-3 decision, written by Justice Gerry Alexander, was issued after sharp private debate among the justices, who heard arguments on the expedited case in May.
The justices had little trouble agreeing that it was OK for a legislature to appropriate money to build a public facility for use by a private entity if the public, in this case baseball fans, was the prime beneficiary.
But there was a long internal struggle over the plaintiffs’ assertion that the Legislature had wrongfully denied the public an opportunity to mount a referendum challenge to the stadium package by declaring the financing legislation an “emergency” and putting it into effect immediately after passage.
The three dissenting justices - Richard Sanders, Barbara Madsen and Richard Guy - argued there was no emergency because the health, safety and welfare of the state were not at risk.
They sided with plaintiffs in the case, Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now (CLEAN), who contended the state constitution makes clear those are the only conditions under which an emergency can be declared.
But the majority agreed with state Solicitor General Narda Pierce, who had argued that an emergency can be asserted and a measure put into effect immediately any time there is good reason to believe the measure’s purpose cannot be carried out unless it is put into effect immediately.
“Ultimately, the emergency that faced the Legislature was that the Seattle Mariners would be put up for sale on Oct. 30 (1995) unless, prior to that date, the Legislature enacted legislation that would assure the development of a new publicly owned baseball stadium for King County,” the majority agreed.
Shawn Newman, a lawyer representing CLEAN, could not be reached Friday, but a statement issued by the organization quoted him as saying:
“The Supreme Court has delayed and denied the people of Washington justice by ruling for the monied interests that seek corporate welfare.”
In the lawsuit, he asserted that the primary purpose of the new stadium was to benefit the Mariners owners, and that the finance package thus was an unconstitutional use of public money for private gain. He said any benefits to baseball fans, Seattle businesses and others were merely “incidental.”
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