The Op-Ed from two very distinguished lawyers — Retired Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander and former Attorney General Rob McKenna — suggests the illegality of a proposed city income tax [“Hate to break it to you, Seattle: Your proposed income tax is illegal,” May 28, Opinion]. Unfortunately, the column skips over an important distinction.
There are two ways of thinking about the effect of a law.
• An individual citizen is bound by existing law, and if the individual’s proposed action is inconsistent with that law, it can properly be labeled illegal.
• Lawmaking bodies, on the other hand, have authority to change law (the city council can change an ordinance, the legislature can change a statute, the people can change the constitution). There is nothing illegal in such a body pressing for change in the law. That is, indeed, a legislature’s principal task.
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When such a proposal is presented to a lawmaking body, there may be substantive policy arguments against it, and there may be practical obstacles if accomplishment of the proposal requires that other laws be changed. These are legitimate issues for discussion. But branding the proposed action “illegal” is a confusing bit of rhetorical overreach.
William R. Andersen, Judson Falknor Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Washington Law School, Seattle
(An earlier online version of this letter had an incorrect headline.)