Wash. lawmaker wants state SC to return to five justices

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Mar 7, 2013

OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline) -- A Washington state lawmaker this week introduced a bill that would return the state Supreme Court to the "makeup mandated in the state constitution."

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, introduced Senate Bill 5867 Wednesday.

"Many people don't realize that our state's constitution mandated that only five justices serve the Supreme Court," Baumgartner explained.

"Over the past century, the Legislature has added justices to give us a nine-justice panel."

Baumgartner pointed out that after salary increases go into effect this September, Supreme Court justices will be the highest-paid elected officials in the state at more than $167,000 a year.

Eliminating four positions on the bench could save between $1.5 million to $2 million a year in salary and administrative costs, he said.

"Every dollar we save by eliminating these four positions would be automatically funneled to K-12 education to help meet the guidelines the Supreme Court laid out in the McCleary decision," Baumgartner said.

"Two million dollars a year can go a long way to funding schools, paying teachers and preparing kids for college."

Baumgartner noted that the Court has expressed "discomfort" in adding to the requirements of clear constitutional mandates.

"The constitution clearly says that the Supreme Court shall consist of five judges," the senator said.

"Based on their recent rulings on McCleary and their rationale behind the decision to throw out the will of the people regarding the two-thirds tax rule, I expect that the court will support this approach."

"Of course, if the justices do disagree, nothing in my bill precludes them from coming before the Legislature and the people to attempt to amend the constitution."

In a 6-3 ruling last week, the state's high court struck down an initiative requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for tax increases.

The Court said in its opinion that the requirement could not be enacted without a constitutional amendment.

As to deciding which justices would get cut, Baumgartner said in a statement it would be best to leave politics and tenure out of the decision.

"They can draw lots," he said. "That seems to be the fairest way to do it. We can let voters decide which five serve on the bench in following elections."

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen told The Associated Press Wednesday that it "seems unlikely" Baumgartner's proposal "could be done."

"It just does not appear to me to be completely thought through, if it's intended to be serious at all," she told the AP.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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