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Our View: Justices lack power to supplant Reed’s decision

Those who suspect courts of sticking their gavels into the Legislature’s business should take comfort from the clear, concise and prompt decision that the Washington Supreme Court issued Friday in Olympia.

In three efficient sentences, the justices announced that they will not second-guess Secretary of State Sam Reed’s decision to certify Initiative 1029 for the 2008 general election ballot. The decision came only a day after the high court heard arguments, and it was released right away rather than after individual justices wrote whatever formal explanations will follow.

We are, after all, less than two months from the Nov. 4 election. There are ballots to print, which is especially critical in counties such as Spokane where all voters get ballots well in advance of Election Day. A prolonged disposition of the legal challenge could have put state and local elections officials in an unnecessarily demanding situation, threatening the reliability of the election.

For the record, I-1029 would require background checks and more training for people who provide long-term care for the elderly and disabled. Now that the proposal is on the ballot there can be a vigorous debate of its merits, as there should be.

Without question, proponents of the measure made a mistake. They intended to file an initiative to the people, but the language on the form they drew up described it as an initiative to the Legislature. Everything else done in conjunction with the petition drive – from the number assigned to it to the timing of the signature-gathering, to the campaign statements made in public – was consistent with an initiative to the people. So, with advice from the attorney general, Reed decided that the error wasn’t fatal.

Opponents, generally care facility operators who see the proposed requirements as a burden, took the matter to court. If they had won, I-1029 could not have gone to the ballot this year. It would have gone to the Legislature in January, and state lawmakers could have either made it law, put it on next year’s ballot or come up with an alternative proposal and put both on the 2009 ballot.

The legal strategy, had it worked, would have given opponents more time to derail the initiative, possibly by securing a watered-down legislative option.

Court documents filed over the past two months include references to similar cases in which the Supreme Court previously made it clear that the Legislature gave the secretary of state authority to decide. The court itself, it has said, lacks the power to supersede that discretion.

That’s an appropriate stance, and anyone who disapproves of judicial activism can embrace it. The merits of I-1029 as public policy are one consideration. The proper operation of the election process is a separate one. If the judges had opinions about background checks and additional training for long-term care providers, they laid them aside.

Likewise, they refrained, again, from substituting their judgment for the secretary of state’s. As a commendable result, the court confined itself to law and left policy decisions to the lawmakers and the voters.


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