The appearance of impartiality, and chasing the golden geese

Apr 26, 2018

— April 26, 2018

Suppose some proud member of Cougar Nation tweeted a photo of a guy on stage at a WSU football rally the night before the Apple Cup game. Then someone recognized the person as being not only a Pac-12 referee, but part of the crew that would be officiating at the WSU-UW game.

Imagine the howls from Huskies about how the “fix was in,” and so on.

Along that line, Senator Michael Baumgartner has called on a Supreme Court justice to recuse herself from a case coming before the court next month.

The Tacoma teachers’ union tweeted a photo of Justice Mary Yu appearing at a Washington Education Association political gathering this past Saturday, in Senator Baumgartner’s hometown of Spokane. I don’t know if she said something that led to the “OMG OMG OMG” in the tweet. But there’s no question that Justice Yu, from Seattle, not only made a special effort to attend the rally but knowingly went on stage before an organization that will soon make arguments before her in the latest offensive against Washington’s charter schools.

Justice Yu claims she attended the rally to get teachers to invite judges into K-12 schools to teach about the legal system. Apparently we’re to believe her invite could not be conveyed just as effectively through the state’s office of public instruction, or through the WEA communications network – it needed to be delivered in person, despite the charter-school case being on the docket for May 17.

The Washington Policy Center report on Justice Yu’s attendance had me remembering how, early in my legislative career, former Justice Richard Sanders got in hot water after making brief remarks at a rally on the Capitol steps. That event was primarily about promoting legislation and certain beliefs, and the sponsor had no case pending before the high court. Even so, the Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) reprimanded Justice Sanders and ordered him to complete a judicial-ethics course.

Any legislator could have spoken at that event, then crossed the street to speak at a union political rally, without fear of a formal reprimand. That’s because legislators aren’t expected to be impartial. Most everything we do means taking a public position one way or the other.

But when the CJC decision against Justice Sanders was reversed on appeal, almost exactly 20 years ago, the ruling explicitly stated “a Justice of the State Supreme Court, as any judge, is required to maintain the appearance of impartiality.”

Having supported the legislation that is keeping public charter schools open (and in the WEA’s crosshairs), I want to trust that the judges who hear the case next month are impartial. Unfortunately, the legislative branch can’t ensure judicial integrity and impartiality any more than we can ensure a football game is officiated fairly. That ball is in the judicial branch’s court.

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It’s ridiculous to claim that Seattle’s large employers have created the city’s homelessness situation. Not when someone can parachute in (like from a state where marijuana is illegal), pitch a tent downtown and – just like that – add another one to the “homeless” count.

But some city council members remain determined to chase the golden geese away with their proposed “head tax,” even though (as I pointed out in the Puget Sound Business Journal and in a Seattle radio interview) the city lacks explicit legal authority to levy such a tax.

I’ve vowed to make sure legislation is introduced in 2019 to definitively prohibit local governments from taxing on a per-employee basis. But there’s a flip side: If Democrats are controlling both chambers of the Legislature in 2019, they could enact legislation giving local governments the legal authority to impose a per-employee tax. And if the donkey gets its nose under the edge of that taxing tent, look out: as advocates for the homelessness sector demand more, the threshold for imposing the tax could drop.