Judge's ruling upholds most of liquor initiative; both sides claim win
A ruling by a Cowlitz County judge allows the liquor-privatization initiative to proceed toward implementation for now, but issues remain before the court.
Seattle Times business reporter
KELSO, Cowlitz County — A Cowlitz County judge upheld most of voter Initiative 1183 Friday, but called for a trial to determine whether the inclusion of a provision to provide $10 million a year to enhance public safety caused voters to vote for a measure they otherwise would have rejected.
At this point, the ruling means the initiative heads toward implementation, with the state getting out of the business of selling liquor to consumers on June 1. At that time large retailers such as Costco Wholesale will be allowed to begin selling it.
But if the court decides voters would have rejected I-1183 without the $10 million a year for public safety, the entire measure could go down.
"Obviously, we're in a position where a lot of people's livelihoods are going to be severely affected by any delay," said Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen M. Warning after hearing arguments Friday morning.
He scheduled a hearing for March 19 and said an appeal could move forward in the meantime, although neither side plans to appeal right now.
Both sides seem to think they won in court Friday. The state thinks the judge favored its case because he granted it a summary judgment, except for the question of the $10 million. The plaintiffs say they won because whatever the court determines on the $10 million question, the judge has ruled that there are two subjects in I-1183 and, they say, that by definition makes the initiative unconstitutional.
In his ruling, the judge said the question is whether the $10 million can be separated from the rest of the initiative. He said that's based on two things: whether the rest of I-1183 can stand without it (he said it can) and whether the provision changed voters' minds. He did not say how voter intent could be determined.
Whatever happens, the case is headed for the state Supreme Court, attorneys for both sides agree.
The lawsuit, filed in December, says the measure violated a rule requiring voter initiatives to address just one subject. A similar lawsuit in King County Superior Court, filed by unions whose members stand to lose their jobs if I-1183 is implemented, was put on hold in January pending this Cowlitz court decision.
Mary Tennyson, the senior state attorney general who argued for I-1183 on Friday, said if the judge finds the initiative unconstitutional, then "we argue about whether the state will be directed to stop implementation while appeals go forward."
The state was joined by attorneys for a coalition of businesses that backed I-1183, including Costco, which donated a record $19 million to help pass the measure. (It initially contributed more, but an unspent portion was refunded.)
Bruce Beckett, vice president of the Washington Restaurant Association, which belongs to the coalition, said, "We're just pleased that implementation continues. ... Personally, I think everyone's in a quandary and this is going to end up in the [state] Supreme Court."
Seattle attorney Michael C. Subit, who argued for the plaintiffs — the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention, the landlord to a state-owned liquor store in Cowlitz County and two Red Apple stores in Kitsap County — figures they have already won.
"He [the judge] ruled it had more than one subject. We won," said Subit, who successfully made the single-subject argument against a Tim Eyman initiative more than a decade ago.
He told the judge that a trial would be pointless because of a previous state Supreme Court ruling about the single-subject rule, which he said maybe he should have presented in more depth.
"Maybe you did and I didn't pick up on it, but I need more," Warning replied.
An executive with the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, which contributed much of the $12 million to fight I-1183 in last fall's election, said the trade group supports the plaintiffs "financially and otherwise."
Karin Moore, vice president and co-general counsel of the wholesalers, traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend Friday's hearing and agreed with Subit that the judge ruled in their favor.
"There's a constitutional violation with the initiative, and the only legal remedy at this point is to invalidate the initiative. That's what the law says," Moore said.
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or email@example.com. On Twitter @AllisonSeattle.