Supreme Court Won’t Block SeaTac Initiative – Later Challenge Possible, But Minimum Wage Measure Goes to Ballot

Sea-Tac International Airport, North America's 17th busiest airport.

Sea-Tac International Airport, North America’s 15th busiest airport.

OLYMPIA, Sept. 11.—Now it’s for sure – voters in the city of SeaTac will make their mark, or rather marks, on a landmark minimum-wage initiative this November. But whether those marks will be counted is another question entirely.

Alaska Airlines, the state Restaurant Association and the operator of two food concessions at Sea-Tac International Airport were shot down Tuesday by the state Supreme Court in their effort to win a quick hearing on a challenge to the so-called SeaTac Good Jobs Initiative. They can seek another hearing later. But by the time they do that, it will be too late to alter the ballot – it goes to the printers this week, if it hasn’t gone already. And so the measure will at least be placed before the 12,000 registered voters in the King County city, making SeaTac the first city anywhere to cast a judgment on a national union-backed campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. It’s just that there’s still no telling whether it will stick.

Unless and until the court rules against the measure, however, it now becomes apparent that there will be a political campaign after all. The SeaTac initiative carries significance far beyond the municipal boundaries. While activists stage rallies in major cities nationwide and organize demonstrations outside fast-food restaurants, the small city dominated by the nation’s 15th-busiest airport will turn thumbs-up or down in November on the nation’s highest minimum wage – some 63 percent higher than Washington’s minimum wage of $9.19 an hour, already the highest state minimum in the country.

The measure was forced to the ballot by a signature campaign coordinated by Working Washington, an organizing arm of the Service Employees International Union. It would affect businesses at the terminal as well as hotels, parking-lot operators and rental-car companies, and would also impose paid sick leave and a host of other workplace rules that would give union organizing efforts an upper hand. Legal challenges so far have focused on whether advocates gathered enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot, though other legal issues raised by the suit presumably will be tried after the election should the initiative be successful.

No Lower Court Opinion the Issue

Though the Supreme Court did not offer reasoning for its decision, it seems evident that justices want to wait for a formal opinion from the state Court of Appeals on the case before they weigh in. The court decision said opponents are free to seek a new hearing when that opinion is finally issued. The Appeals Court ruled last Friday that the ballot measure should proceed to the ballot, and it overturned a contrary opinion issued by a King County Superior Court judge. The Appeals Court judgment, issued an hour after the Friday-afternoon hearing, took the form of an order designed to beat a 4:30 p.m. deadline for the finalization of ballots in King County. The opinion is still to come. In the motion before the Supreme Court, plaintiffs argued that the measure still might be kept from the ballot if the high court ruled by Thursday – a prospect that now seems most unlikely.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Alaska Airlines offered no clue as to whether the plaintiffs will continue to press their challenge before the election. It said, “The Washington Court of Appeals ruling last Friday created uncertainty over the process to qualify initiatives for the ballot in SeaTac as well as in other municipalities across the state. Everyone involved, including those who want to place a municipal initiative on the ballot in the future, needs clarity on the necessary procedures for gathering signatures for an initiative. That’s why we asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the inconsistencies between the Appeals Court ruling, SeaTac city code and state law. Such a ruling, whenever it’s made, will help the initiative process in Washington state.”

Argument hinged on whether proponents had managed to gather sufficient signatures to win a place on the ballot. They turned in 2,506 signatures last June, well over the 1,536 required. But signature checks and challenges at the county and city levels whittled that margin down to 43. The court battle centered on a state law governing signatures gathered for municipal initiatives. The law says that when voters sign more than once, all signatures must be thrown out, including the original. The city and county refused to do so, citing case law that appears to require the first signature to be counted. Indeed, state-level initiatives are treated differently — the original signature is counted in those cases, and the distinction has to do with the fact that state-level initiatives are a right granted to voters by the state constitution; municipal initiatives gain their authority instead from state statute. King County Judge Andrea Darvas ruled that the law governing municipal initiatives could not be ignored, threw out 61 signatures and put the initiative in doubt.

Because no opinion has been issued by the Court of Appeals, it is unclear what reasoning it followed. Questions posed by the judges Friday might lead one to believe that the court may find the law an unconstitutional disenfranchisement of voting rights. A judge in Cowlitz County found the law unconstitutional earlier this year for the same reason, though no precedent was recorded in that case. The uncertainty about the Appeals Court ruling made for an odd brief by the plaintiffs in the SeaTac case when they filed before the Supreme Court – essentially they had to anticipate the arguments that might be raised by the Appeals Court and deal with each one.

The 20-page brief concluded by arguing that if the court relaxes one rule, chaos might ensue. “If it is unconstitutional to require a date and address or to deter misconduct by refusing to count multiple signatures, what of the many state and municipal laws that criminalize a wide range of misconduct? What of the many technical requirements for the timing of submission of signatures and for the format of petitions? This court and others have held that these requirements are valid and should be strictly adhered to.”