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Originally published Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Courts may disagree, but Eyman usually gets his way

It’s possible Tim Eyman may now be responsible for more unconstitutional laws than anyone in state history. But what’s most amazing about Eyman is how little the failures or bad laws seem to matter.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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For a conservative, Tim Eyman sure doesn’t get along that well with the state Constitution.

After a big portion of his life’s work was tossed out last week by the state Supreme Court, it’s possible Eyman may now be responsible for more unconstitutional laws than anyone in state history.

Of the 13 statewide initiatives he’s spearheaded since 1999, eight were passed by voters and became law — an impressive record. Except six of those eight have now been found unconstitutional, in whole or in part. A seventh was partially blunted by the courts.

Only one — a 2005 measure for state performance audits — has survived completely unscathed.

So basically 75 percent of Eyman’s statewide work has been judged unconstitutional. He’s also had local measures tossed by the Supreme Court, most recently his practice of holding city referendums on red-light cameras.

Is he even trying to square his stuff with the state’s founding document?

Of course he is, he says.

“I take it very seriously,” Eyman said. “But you can’t hire the nine Supreme Court justices to draft your initiatives for you. You have to guess at what future justices are going to think. So we do the best we can.”

He did allow that the legality of his proposed laws isn’t his No. 1 concern.

“Having the public accept the initiatives is obviously the highest priority.”

To me, a plain reading of the state Constitution could have told Eyman his two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes wouldn’t cut it. It’s right there, if he had wanted to see. His critics say that’s classic Eyman.

“We rarely review an Eyman initiative that we wouldn’t describe as poorly written or unconstitutional,” writes Andrew Villeneuve, a Democratic activist and Eyman watchdog. “And that’s because Eyman is terrible at writing law.”

Or maybe it’s not that important to him. Because what’s most amazing about Eyman is how little the failures or bad laws seem to matter. Constitution be damned, he usually ends up getting his way, or close to it.

Two of his tossed-out measures were immediately repassed by the Legislature. He’s been all but banned from running his red-light camera referendums, but most cities where he sets up shop end up taking down the cameras anyway.

On taxes, Spokane last month passed a local version of the two-thirds vote requirement. The Supreme Court dubbed this type of policy the “tyranny of the minority” — correctly, in my view — but voters obviously love it. So don’t be surprised if Eyman keeps the idea alive, city by city. Or puts some modified tax-limit measure on the statewide ballot. Or both.

“Learn, adapt, and persevere,” was the title of an email Eyman sent me explaining how the court defeats don’t much faze him. He says his measures have both “legal power” and “lobbying power.” On the first front, it’s true he gets bested all the time. But on the second?

“We’re winning on the policies,” he claims.

He’s right, he mostly is winning. I don’t get the sense Eyman is all that concerned about the constitutionality of his measures. What he cares about is their popularity. He argues — as did dissenting Judge James Johnson last week — that the court was the one being tyrannical because it went against such a strong public vote.

“Six judges didn’t like it,” Eyman said. “But 1.9 million people do.”

That belief — that popular will is what trumps — can be called a lot of things. Activist, populist, maybe even radical. What it can’t be called is conservative.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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