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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Sunday Spin2: Courting contempt

OLYMPIA -- The state Supreme Court’s order for the Legislature to show up at the Temple of Justice on the first week of September and explain why it shouldn’t be held in contempt is prompting some interesting speculation around the Capitol Campus.

For example, the court’s order actually is for “the state” to show up, but it would be difficult to fit the 6 million-plus residents into the smallish courtroom, and it’s clear from the rest of the order that the court is really just peeved at the Legislature. All 147 legislators wouldn’t fit in the courtroom, and even if they could, there’s no way the court would want to hear from each one. . . 

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. . . If they did, the nine honorable justices would get a wide range of opinions on the case, some of them disagreeing so much as to be disagreeable, or even contemptuous. But that’s not capital C contempt, which is what the Legislature is facing. Speculation abounds as to the penalty for the big C. Legislative leaders being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs and forced to wear ankle bracelets showing them in the Capitol until a deal is done? The Legislature being ordered to pay a fine, which would come out the General Fund . . . and go into the General Fund? The court itself crafting a state budget that spends more on schools, finding the money by boosting revenue or cutting other programs?

Even legislators who agree the state should be spending more on public schools might try to lecture the court on the separation of powers. That was the subject of a Senate Law and Justice hearing last week that delved deeply into the constitutional problems of the court ordering the Legislature to do something that it doesn’t have the votes to pass.

Gonzaga Law School Professor David DeWolf told the committee there’s no precedent for the state Supremes sanctioning the Legislature for not doing something the court said it should. Presumably legislators who would vote no on a school budget that would pass court muster are representing their constituents just as the legislators who would vote yes; and if there aren’t enough yes votes, who would be ordered to change to “Aye” to get the needed majorities and go back home to explain themselves to the voters?

“We are in uncharted waters,” said DeWolf, who questioned whether the court had the power to order the Legislature to pass specific amounts of money for edication. “I don’t think capitulation is the responsible thing to do.”

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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