On October 15, 2020, the Washington Supreme Court held that Initiative 976 (I-976)—which would have decreased car tab fees and greatly reduced public transportation funding—violated the Washington Constitution.  In doing so, the Court expressly adopted the reasoning promoted in an amicus brief filed by McNaul Ebel attorney Curtis Isacke on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Washington.

The amicus brief argued that I-976 must be invalidated in its entirety because it violates article II, section 19 of the Washington Constitution, which requires that “[n]o bill shall embrace more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.” In particular, the brief urged the Court to enforce the Constitutional requirement that the subject of a bill or initiative be contained in the proposed enactment’s title to protect the public from being misled. It noted that the phrase “except voter-approved charges” in the I-976 ballot title misleadingly suggested that certain existing, county or regional voter-approved taxes and fees on car tabs would be “excepted” from the scope of I-976. In fact, the opposite was true: I-976 repealed all other voter-approved fees and actually repealed certain mechanisms for voters to approve new fees in the future.  Accordingly, the amicus brief made the case that “the I-976 ballot title failed to afford the average-informed voter a fair opportunity to evaluate the content and consequences of the initiative” and thereby “undermine[d] the democratic mandate of I-976.”

The Washington Supreme Court agreed that the ballot title violated article II, section 19. In an opinion authored by Justice Gonzalez and joined by all but one justice, the Court concluded that “[t]he average informed lay voter would not think that ‘[t]his measure would . . . limit annual motor-vehicle-license fees to $30, except voter-approved charges’ would mean charges previously approved by voters would be eliminated.”  Then, citing the League’s amicus brief, the Court explained:

As the League of Women Voters notes, many voters have voted on [car tab] measures in the past, and ‘the average-informed voter encountering the phrase ‘except voter- approved charges’ would expect that these earlier votes were the reason for the ‘except’ clause [and] would have no reason to anticipate that I-976 would implicitly repeal their votes while telling them that ‘voter-approved charges’ were ‘except[ed].’’

The Court held that I-976 “violates the subject-in-title rule because it is deceptive and misleading since the average informed lay voter would conclude voter approved taxes – such as those used to fund local and regional transportation projects across our state – would remain.”  The Court additionally held that I-976 violated the single-subject rule in the first clause of article II, section 19.

McNaul Ebel is pleased that its advocacy on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Washington was instrumental in obtaining the result sought by the League.

McNaul Ebel’s team was led by partners Curtis Isacke and Theresa DeMonte. Curtis and Theresa are part of McNaul Ebel’s Litigation and Trial Practice Group and devote substantial time and have significant experience litigating civil and Constitutional Law appeals in the appellate courts in the State of Washington.