Three times, groundbreaking Seattle ordinances have been thrown out by judges for being unconstitutional or overreaching. Each time the same law firm has been involved in suing the city. So what’s their view of what the Seattle City Council is doing wrong?
What is the Seattle City Council doing wrong?
I put this question the other day to Ethan Blevins, who, before he answered, noted that no Seattle politician is likely to listen to his advice.
For one he lives out in Bellevue. For two he works for a libertarian, anti-progressive law firm started 45 years ago as a counter to the ACLU. But three, and most pressingly, the 36-year-old has become the sharpest pin around to the council’s liberal bubble.
In the past two years, three city ordinances have been struck down by judges for being unconstitutional or overreaching. In all three, Blevins and his two-lawyer Bellevue office of the Pacific Legal Foundation were involved in suing the city.
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“I think the city sees itself as an activist in its own right,” he says. “Not a government weighing the pros and cons of an issue, but an activist. I’d say that’s where most of the problems originate.”
This past week, a judge threw out Seattle’s novel “first-come, first-served” rental ordinance. It mandated that landlords must rent to the first qualified tenant who applies, rather than choosing from a pool of applicants.
The purpose was to try to stop landlords from discriminating, either knowingly or not. But the judge thrashed the measure, saying it violated the landlords’ property and free-speech rights. She called it “unduly oppressive because it restricts innocent business practices,” and generally suggested the city had run hog-wild with its regulatory powers.
It was “a smackdown,” one Seattle landlord summed up.
The other cases were when the city was searching through trash to check if Seattleites were recycling food scraps properly (that was rejected because it was a warrantless search). And then there was the city’s attempt to levy an income tax (thrown out, for now, because it violated state law).
Blevins said it ought to concern the city that all three of these rulings were made by liberal Seattle judges. (Before becoming judges, all three had made political donations to Democrats or liberal causes.)
“We’re not dealing with right-wing judges here,” he said. “These are Seattle judges, saying to the city: ‘Hey, you’re going way too far.’ ”
The Pacific Legal Foundation is as un-Seattle as it gets. It was started in California when a certain Gov. Ronald Reagan complained how the ACLU kept suing and gumming up all his welfare reforms. So some of his aides thought: Let’s start a counterweight that defends capitalism and free enterprise.
When I was the environment reporter for this paper in the 1990s, the Pacific Legal Foundation was a major player trying to block land-use restrictions, as well as overturn protections for salmon, marbled murrelets and orca whales. It also aggressively fought affirmative action.
Today the group, headquartered in Sacramento, is funded mostly by conservative foundations and individuals. As the frontier for experimental liberal legislation has shifted to cities, the firm has followed, Blevins said.
“We now monitor the Seattle City Council pretty closely,” he said, when I asked about his process. “I look for statements coming out of there about how something they’ve passed is ‘first in the nation’ or ‘groundbreaking.’ That’s when I know I should take a hard look at it.”
All three ordinances struck down were “firsts” — first garbage-snooping plan, first city in the state to try an income tax, first city in the nation to try to remove human judgment from the renting process completely.
Blevins noted that all three ordinances also passed unanimously. This is a crucial point. The Seattle political system has no opposition party (well, except from the even-further left.) So maybe the ideas aren’t as battle-tested as they could be.
During the debate over the rental ordinance, landlord groups did give feedback. But most of it was practical, like “this won’t work,” or “this will have unintended consequences.” There was no one to say: “Hey, is this even constitutional?”
A year ago I wrote a column suggesting the blinkered City Council should have a “right-winger in residence,” to give some conservative comment and pushback. The council wouldn’t have to follow any advice of course, but the point is at least they’d be aware of the other side.
I proposed the right-winger in residence as a joke. But maybe they really need one?
I don’t know. It’s either that or keep losing to this guy.