Over on Crosscut, Daniel Jack Chasan asks the question: “Are super-majorities in the legislature unconstitutional?”
Simple answer: of course they are… except for, you know, those super-majorities specifically prescribed within the constitution.
Think about it. Washington state’s constitution mandates a two-thirds legislative super-majority to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot, an intentionally difficult legislative hurdle. And unlike in California, Washington’s constitution cannot be amended via initiative.
But if constitutionally prescribed legislative majorities, like that required to amend the constitution itself, can be changed through a simple majority vote — either of the legislature or through a citizens initiative — then there’s really no point in having a constitution at all. What sets a constitution apart from, and primary over the rest of our laws is the extra effort it takes to modify it; if the majority provisions can be changed via simple majority, than so can the constitution, making it in essence, just another set of statutes.
The fact that I-960 makes it more difficult to pass legislation, rather than less, is neither here nor there. The constitution is the constitution.
So why has the Washington State Supreme Court never thrown out I-960 or its predecessor I-601 as unconstitutional? Because its never been forced to rule on the issue.
Hugh Spitzer, who teaches Washington constitutional law at the University of Washington law school, says it seems pretty clear that if the state supreme court were somehow forced to vote on the issue, the court would find the two-thirds rule unconstitutional. But so far, the court has managed to duck the question.
“The court is terrified of having to make a decision,” on the constitutionality of a supermajority, Spitzer suggests. “They do everything they can” to avoid it.
Huh. So here’s an idea that I’m confident my friends in the Democratic caucus will never embrace: why not just up the ante on Tim Eyman’s game of constitutional brinksmanship, and fight fire with fire? If Tim is going to insist on repeatedly running initiatives that increase the majority required to pass certain forms of legislation, then the Legislature should pass a bill — on a simple majority vote — that increases the majority required to qualify or pass certain types of initiatives.
You know, we could attempt to increase the number of signatures necessary to qualify an initiative for the ballot from 8 percent of the previous gubernatorial turnout to 12 percent, and/or increase the majority required for passage at the polls from a simple majority to say, 60 percent.
Of course, such legislation would be challenged, and of course, the Supreme Court would strike it down. You just can’t change such constitutionally prescribed majorities through simple legislation.
And that would settle that constitutional issue, once and for all.