A conservative state Supreme Court justice and a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday urged lawmakers to give citizens power to protect their rights under the state constitution.
But spokesmen for state and local governments told the Senate Law and Justice Committee that the measure giving citizens the ability to sue for damages based on alleged violations of the state constitution could open a whole new avenue for lawsuits and bust government budgets.
“I think this is a marvelous piece of legislation,” said Justice Richard Sanders, a former King County attorney who spent a large part of his career representing clients in disputes with local governments over land use and other issues.
“This is a fundamental, pure issue,” agreed ACLU spokesman Gerard Sheehan. “What this is saying is that citizens can assert their rights under the state constitution when they feel government has violated their rights under the state constitution.”
The measure, versions of which have faltered in recent years, is given excellent chance of passage by the Republican-controlled Legislature. It’s prospects with Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, are uncertain.
Sponsor Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said in an interview that “It is supported by the far right and the far left, so it’s a matter of filling in the middle.” Roach, chairwoman of the justice panel, said she was confident the measure would become law this year. Ten states already recognize a citizen’s right to sue for damages based on state constitutional rights, legislative staff said.
Backers of the bill, SB5896, note that the federal government, since 1871, has given citizens the right to collect damages and legal fees if they can prove their rights were violated under the U.S. Constitution.
No such right exists with respect to the state constitution, however.
“If a CPS (Child Protective Services) worker runs over me with his car, I can sue for damages using tort law. But if that same worker violates my right to privacy under the state constitution, there is no redress under state law,” Sheehan said.
But Olympia City Attorney Mark O. Erickson, speaking on behalf of Washington cities, told the committee that citizens who feel their federal constitutional rights have been violated by local governments can and do sue for redress. He suggested that the federal avenue provides enough relief. Giving citizens the power to collect damages under the state constitution would result in a flurry of suits and great cost to taxpayers, he said.
But Sanders said local and state governments run roughshod over citizens because they know they can grind down citizens in court without financial risk. Governments “suppress ordinary citizens,” he said. “This (bill) would require them to settle these lawsuits if they know what’s good for them.” xxxx IN SESSION Coming up The House and Senate education committees have scheduled hearings today on bills authorizing charter schools. Legislative hotline 1-800-562-6000 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. On the Internet http://www.wa.gov for the state of Washington’s home page. http://www.leg.wa.gov for the state-run Legislative Service Center.
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