Responding to a series of legislative failures to comply with its remedial orders to properly fund public education, the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously on September 11, 2014 that the State of Washington is in “contempt of court.” McCleary v. State contempt decision. It further decreed that “If by adjournment of the 2015 legislative session, the State has not purged the contempt by complying with the court’s order, the court will reconvene to impose sanctions and other remedial measures as necessary.” It is extremely rare for a court to issue such a contempt order against a state or a state legislature.
In 2012, the court had held that the state’s education finance system was in violation of the State Constitution. McCleary v. State. The court largely accepted as a remedy the reform plan that a state task force had developed, and a six year time line the legislature had adopted for implementing it. The court retained jurisdiction and required the legislature to file an annual report that would describe the progress that the legislature had made toward implementing the new system.
Last January, the Court found the legislature’s latest annual report to be inadequate and ordered the legislature to submit “a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-2018 school year” by April 30, 2014. At a hearing on September 3, 2014, the State admitted that it had not complied with the Court’s order, but it asked the court to provide the legislature the opportunity during the 2015 budget session to enact a plan for fully funding K-12 public education by 2018. The state assured the court that a contempt order is not necessary to “get the legislature’s attention.” The court’s responded sharply to that position:
The court has no doubt that it already has the legislature’s “attention.” But that is not the purpose of a contempt order. Rather, contempt is the means by which a court enforces its lawful orders when they are not followed. ….These orders are not advisory or designed only to get the legislature’s “attention”; the court expects them to be obeyed even though they are directed to a co-ordinate branch of government…..
In the interest of comity and continuing dialogue between the branches of government, the court accepts the State’s assurances that it will be compliant by the end of the 2o15 session. Thus, the court will not presently impose sanctions or other remedial measures….If the contempt is not purged by adjournment of the 2015 legislature, the court will reconvene and impose sanctions or other remedial measures.
Among the sanctions that the plaintiffs have recommended that the court consider are monetary fines, prohibiting expenditures on certain other matters until the court’s constitutional ruling is complied with, ordering the sale of state property to fund compliance, or shutting down the entire state public school system unless the constitutional violation is stopped.