Thursday Jolt: Fact-Checking Supreme Court Justice Johnson

By Afternoon Jolt September 27, 2012

Today's Loser: State Supreme Court Justice James Johnson

At this week's landmark state Supreme Court hearing  where Democratic state legislators and education advocates argued against Tim Eyman's I-1053, which requires a two-thirds majority of the state legislature to raise taxes, conservative Justice James Johnson got in attorney Paul Lawrence's face.

Lawrence, representing the Democrats and the education activists, was making the point that the historical context shows Washington State's founding fathers locked legislators into a simple majority rule unless otherwise stated. Lawrence cited constitutional debates and other provisions of the constitution relating to the rule under debate this week—Section 2, Article 22, which says "no bill shall become a law unless... a majority of the members elected to each house be recorded thereon as voting in its favor."[pullquote]"With all due respect, I don't believe that's the proper reading of the constitutional history."—the Democrats' attorney, Paul Lawrence[/pullquote]

For example, there are 17 instances in the constitution that specify higher voting thresholds (such as issuing bonds or passing a constitutional amendment), making it clear that higher voting thresholds need to be spelled out.

Johnson interrupted Lawrence with some apparent historical context of his own: “You can look at the newspaper coverage [from the time]—and the history of this provision is to the contrary, i.e., it was a quorum provision," he said. "People were being elected around the state and the provision says you can't pass a bill unless a majority of those elected to any house have come over to Olympia and voted on it.  ... My legislative history is the Seattle Times of 1889, August 9th. It tells the story and the problem of people being elected from around the state and you had to have a quorum requirement because the people close to Olympia could get here first. Now that’s my history.”

His point was that the provision was specific to a particular problem from times past: Majority rule was a safeguard for legislators who lived far away from Olympia and didn't want to be left out of the process by sly western Washington residents.

The problem is that the Aug 9, 1889 Seattle Times makes no mention of Johnson's theory. In fact, all it says about the majority requirement is that a motion to remove the majority requirement failed:

"Turner moved to strike out the provision that a majority vote of the members elected be necessary to pass a bill. The motion was lost and the section passed."

Watch the exchange between Lawrence and Johnson starting at 28:58.

"With all due respect," Lawrence told Johnson, "I don't believe that's the proper reading of the constitutional history."
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