Washington Supreme Court imposes $100,000/day fine for State's failure to fund public education

McCleary v. State, No. 84362-7 (Wash. Aug. 13, 2015).

Under the Washington Constitution, it’s the State’s “paramount duty” to “make ample provision for the education of all children” within the State. In January 2012, the Washington Supreme Court issued its McCleary decision, holding that the State was violating this constitutional duty. The court imposed no immediate remedy, however. The State was simply asked to lay out a detailed plan to fully fund basic education. 

In January 2014, two years after the initial McCleary decision, the court held that the latest plan that the State had submitted made some progress, but fell hundreds of millions of dollars short of fully funding basic education on a concrete schedule. Once again, the court ordered no particular remedy—the State was simply asked to submit a better plan. 

The plan that the State eventually provided was not the plan that the court had asked for—as the State itself conceded. And so, in September 2014, the court held the State in contempt. The court declined actually to sanction the State, in the hope that the State would purge its contempt during the 2015 legislative session. Earlier this summer, after three special sessions, the legislature passed a budget for the 2015-2017 biennium. The State then submitted a post-budget report to the Washington Supreme Court.

A unanimous Washington Supreme Court now rules that the new budget does not comply with the State’s constitutional duty. The budget does not meet the State’s own targets for class size, and “wholly fail[s] to offer any plan” to fund the personnel costs necessary to fund decent education. On personnel costs, the court says, the State offers “further promises, not concrete plans.” 

Because the State remains in contempt of court, the court fines the State $100,000 a day until it adopts a complete plan for complying with its constitutional duty. The money must “be held in a segregated account for the benefit of basic education.” And the court encourages Governor Inslee to call a special legislative session to deal with the State’s noncompliance.

The response to the court’s decision has been fairly muted, with one prominent exception. Rep. Matt Manweller, who teaches constitutional law at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, has said this:

Rep. Manweller hasn’t explained his support for impeachment in detail, but he appears to think that the Justices should be impeached because they’ve decided “a nonjusticiable political question.” Thats incorrect. Back in 1978, the Washington Supreme Court rejected this very argument, holding instead that the State’s duty to provide an ample education is “mandatory and imposes [a] judicially enforceable affirmative duty.”

Rep. Manweller’s support for impeachment seems dubious even on its own terms. If all nine Justices who joined today’s decision are impeached and removed from office, then Governor Inslee, a Democrat, will appoint nine new Justices. Does Rep. Manweller, a Republican, really want that? Or does he plan to keep impeaching Justices ad infinitum?