By Scott North
What to make of the recent ruling by the state Supreme Court regarding traffic-enforcement cameras?
The court split 5-4 early this month to bar local initiatives that empower voters to decide whether red-light camera programs will continue to crop up in Washington cities and towns.
The justices behind the majority opinion said the ruling was necessary to resolve camera-vote controversies that have arisen in cities including Mukilteo, Monroe, Bellingham, Redmond, Longview and Wenatchee.
Those signing the minority opinion, however, didn’t think the court needed to weigh in at all. One legal observer sees the ruling as a triumph for corporate interests over power that Washington’s constitution says should always rest with voters.
The camera case got its start in Mukilteo in 2010, when initiative activist Tim Eyman prepared a measure there to impose strict conditions for traffic-enforcement camera use, including requiring voter approval.
The Mukilteo City Council already had passed an enforcement-camera ordinance and planned to install some. Voters lined up 70 percent against moving forward with the program, and while there were questions about the legality of Eyman’s Mukilteo initiative, the city’s leaders heeded the electorate.
Looking back on that election, the four justices who signed the minority opinion this month said Mukilteo’s camera decisions were made on a constitutionally sound political track that the state’s high court didn’t need to revisit.
The law firm that represents American Traffic Solutions Inc., the Arizona red-light camera company that had negotiated a contract with Mukilteo, saw things differently. As they did later in Bellingham and Wenatchee, the attorneys headed to court seeking to block the 2010 Mukilteo vote.
The camera lawyers claimed to represent Mukilteo Citizens for Simple Government, an organization that nobody had ever heard of. Later, The Herald found evidence that the camera company had gone looking for Mukilteo residents who were willing to provide them legal standing to weigh in on the community’s camera conflict.
Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Michael Downes refused to block the Mukilteo ballot measure. A similar decision was handed down in August 2011 by Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Ira J. Uhrig, when he cleared a Bellingham camera measure for the ballot.
That judge also sanctioned the camera company, holding that it had improperly tried to use litigation to snuff out political participation.
The Supreme Court’s ruling about local votes on enforcement cameras renders those voter-friendly decisions moot.
But even Eyman knew going in that the camera company had legal precedent on its side. In rulings dating back at least to the growth management wars of 20 years ago, the state Supreme Court repeatedly has made clear it sees limits on the ability of local voters to shape how state laws are implemented. On cameras, the judges found that state lawmakers had limited decisions to a legislative body, such as a city council, effectively blocking voters from directly deciding whether to have a program.
What now? State Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, last week introduced a bill that would tweak the 2005 camera law to allow local votes. The high court ruling also likely doesn’t block advisory votes, or a statewide initiative to rip out by the roots that state statute, which cleared the way for enforcement cameras in the first place.
The ruling has a broader significance, too, said Shawn Newman, an Olympia attorney and Washington state director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute based at the University of Southern California.
Newman points to the plain language of the state constitution’s Article I, section 4, which says, “The right of petition and of the people peaceably to assemble for the common good shall never be abridged.”
The high court’s camera ruling was the result of a well-orchestrated legal strategy by lawyers working on behalf of the companies who stand to profit most, Newman said. He sees it as a continued erosion of a right that our state constitution says we all should hold dear.
“It is an amazing thing to behold, because it is the power of corporate influence on our process,” Newman said.