OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline) -- A Washington state newspaper is calling a bill introduced last week that would cut the number of state Supreme Court justices from nine to five "misguided and wrong."
In an editorial published Friday, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin contends state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who introduced Senate Bill 5867 Wednesday, is "seems irked" over the high court's recent decisions.
The Court, in one decision, mandated the Legislature allocate more funding for education.
In another, it struck down an initiative requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for tax increases. The Court said in its opinion last month that the requirement could not be enacted without a constitutional amendment.
"Baumgartner is attempting give the Court what he seems to believe is a taste of its own medicine," the newspaper wrote.
The senator said in a statement last week that the bill would return the Court to the "makeup mandated in the state constitution."
"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 also 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."
"Baumgartner's petulant attempt to gut the state Supreme Court to punish the justices in the wake of a few recent unfavorable rulings is misguided and wrong," the Union-Bulletin wrote.
The newspaper notes that Baumgartner is correct in that Article IV, Section 2 of the state constitution does state the Supreme Court "shall consist of five judges."
However, it contends that if the senator had "bothered to read" the last sentence of Section 2, he would "clearly see" that having nine justices is not "stretching" the constitutional mandate.
"That sentence that allows nine or more justices reads: 'The Legislature may increase the number of judges of the Supreme Court from time to time and may provide for separate departments of said Court.' And nowhere in the state constitution does it specifically state the court can be reduced -- even back to its original size," the editorial board wrote.
The newspaper argues that as the state's population has grown, so has the Court's caseload -- thus warranting more justices.
And while the Union-Bulletin admits the $2 million saved is a "nice chunk of change," it contends it won't make enough difference in the state's schools to offset the damage done to the judicial system.
"Cutting the court nearly in half will make a trek through the court system even slower than it is today," the newspaper wrote, adding that the plan is "petty nonsense."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.