A divided Washington Supreme Court on Thursday rejected claims that Gov. Jay Inslee exceeded powers granted to him under state law when he imposed an emergency ban on evictions during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Landlords sued over the restrictions, arguing Inslee overstepped his authority and violated the state constitution. Lower courts sided against the landlords, and the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upholds those rulings.
Though the eviction moratorium is no longer in place, the court said it was still important to rule on the case.
“Undoubtedly, our state will face crises again that will call for the use of emergency power,” according to the opinion. “It is appropriate for this court to consider whether that power was used lawfully here to guide its use in the future.”
The decision marks another win for Inslee with his pandemic-era emergency proclamations, a number of which have been challenged and upheld in court.
“We appreciate the justices’ careful consideration of this matter,” Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk wrote in an email. “The eviction moratorium was an important piece of our life-saving efforts during the worst of the pandemic.”
The court ruling notes estimates showing that without the moratorium, 790,000 people in Washington would have been evicted from their homes during the pandemic.
Rent obligations ‘never waived or suspended’
Gene and Susan Gonzales, the Horwath Family Two, LLC, and the Washington Landlord Association filed a lawsuit in May 2021 over Inslee’s statewide eviction moratorium.
In March 2020, Inslee issued his first proclamation prohibiting landlords and law enforcement from proceeding with evictions for tenants’ failure to pay rent. Over the next year and a half, Inslee extended and modified the moratorium alongside a similar federal policy.
The plaintiffs argued that Inslee exceeded his authority as governor by waiving state laws that required tenants to pay rent.
But Chief Justice Steven González wrote in the majority opinion that Inslee’s proclamation never took away the requirement for tenants to pay rent and instead emphasized that tenants that could afford to should pay.
“The obligation to pay rent was never waived or suspended, regardless of whether some tenants took advantage of the fact they would not be immediately evicted if they stopped paying,” González wrote.
The challengers also argued that Inslee violated the state constitution’s contracts clause and its doctrine on the separation of powers between the state’s three branches of government.
The court disagreed. The justices in the majority found that the eviction moratorium did not violate the contracts clause because it did not cancel tenants’ obligations to pay rent, and instead only delayed the consequences of them failing to do so.
The court rejected the separation of powers claims on the grounds that the laws surrounding evictions were created by the Legislature, with lawmakers delegating the governor authority to change them as needed during a state of emergency.
The opposing view
Richard Stephens, attorney for the landlords, said the Gonzales’s and the Horwath’s were “deeply disappointed” in the court’s decision, which he said prevents them from seeking any relief against tenants who had a steady income during the pandemic but chose not to pay their rent.
“The decision is a significant undercutting of individual rights,” he said.
Justices Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Mary Yu, Raquel Montoya-Lewis and Debra Stephens signed onto the majority opinion.
Four justices – Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Helen Whitener – joined in a dissenting opinion. In it, Johnson wrote that the governor did not have the authority to suspend landlords’ legal right to evict and tenants’ legal obligation to pay rent.
While the dissent agreed that the moratorium didn’t suspend any laws surrounding evictions and rent payments, it said it had the effect of doing so by limiting when landlords could evict tenants.
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