Last Wednesday, the Washington Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the plaintiffs’ motion to hold the state in contempt for failing to comply with the Court’s prior orders that require the state to make sufficient progress each year to eliminate constitutional deficiencies in its education funding system by 2017-2018.
In 2012, the court 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.
In 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. Plaintiffs claim that the plan submitted in April was totally inadequate and asked the Court to impose sanctions on the state defendants. The Court then issued an order that required the defendants to address at a hearing on September 3rd whether, if they are found in contempt, the court should impose monetary sanctions, prohibit expenditures on certain other matters until the court’s constitutional ruling is complied with, order the sale of State property to fund compliance, or shut down the school system unless the constitutional violation is stopped.
At the hearing, the patience of the justices appeared to be wearing thin. According to the account in the Seattle Times, they repeatedly asked why they should believe the Legislature’s promise that it will make more progress in the 2015 budget session than it has in all other sessions since the court’s 2012 landmark school-funding decision. “It’s been said that insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” said Justice Charles Wiggins, questioning why the court should continue to wait.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Thomas Ahearne, argued that the Supreme Court risks becoming an irrelevant branch of government if it doesn’t hold the Legislature accountable for failing to carry out the court’s order to submit the funding plan by April — or at least by the end of 2014.
“Every year that we just keep talking about this, we’re losing kids,” Ahearne said. “They lose forever another year of their education.”
Deputy Solicitor General Alan Copsey, representing the Legislature, said the court shouldn’t mistake honest political disagreement over how to fund education for contempt, warning that any premature sanction could upset the chances to reach a deal in the 2015 budget year.
“The Legislature has told you unambiguously that it understands the seriousness of the 2015 session,” Copsey said. “I think it deserves the court’s respect to give it a chance to follow through on that commitment.”
But in their questions, justices repeatedly pressed Copsey on why the Legislature should be given the benefit of the doubt and not be punished ahead of the 2015 session.
In one exchange, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen noted that one excuse for inaction was that the political process requires a meeting of minds across party lines.
Madsen: “What is it that you think is going to change between now and say the end of the next session with respect to those reasons? Why aren’t those reasons we’re going to hear again at the end of the legislative session in 2015?”
Copsey: “There will be an operating budget. There will be legislation that the court can look at. The court will have much more information, much more detail after the 2015 session than it has now.”
The Court reserved judgment and is expected to issue its decision shortly.