On Thursday, Jan. 20, Chelan County Superior Court Judge John E. Bridges gave Gov. Christine Gregoire all the time she needs to write and pass a $26 billion budget, enact major legislation like health care reform, and show the entire state what kind of governor she is. Gregoire is already taking advantage of her opportunities. On Wednesday, Jan. 19, with one executive order, she kept 19,000 poor kids from losing their health insurance. Meanwhile, Republican Dino Rossi headed off to D.C. to attend the inauguration of a president that Washington state has little affection for, reminding everyone just how conservative the losing gubernatorial candidate really is. While Democrats might have smiled when Dino left town, they did a jig over Bridges' decisions in a Wenatchee courtroom.
During the first hearing in the Republican lawsuit challenging Gregoire's 129-vote election victory, Bridges showed considerable poise and humor in navigating his way through the opening motions from the many parties. Rossi's lawyers found their efforts to hasten the trial opposed not only by Democrats but many of the state's 39 counties, which they have named as defendants and have served with extensive fact-finding requests. In their effort to ferret out illegal votes, Rossi's attorneys have cast such a wide net that one small county, Ferry, complained that its auditor would be unable to do anything but work to fulfill their request. By its very nature, the sweeping GOP pretrial investigation is at odds with the party's desire to wrap up litigation quickly and proceed to the new gubernatorial election they seek.
Bridges clearly came down on the side of the law: "The old maxim that justice delayed is justice denied has a corollary, and that is that justice hurried is also justice denied." He says the trial will proceed under the normal rules for a civil case.
When asked how long the discovery or fact-finding takes in normal civil litigation, University of Washington Adjunct Law School Professor Jeffrey Grant says, "In a word: forever." That's why Democratic defendant David McDonald, who also is an election-law expert at the prestigious Preston Gates law firm, says he doesn't expect the judge to review the facts in his courtroom until summer, if at all.
Rossi spokesperson Mary Lane scoffed at the Democrats' timetable, predicting the judge's ruling only delayed the trial by a couple of weeks—"unless they are planning to delay, delay, delay." Even so, Lane didn't predict a trial until late winter. Other legal experts said it was likely that discovery, a trial, and appeals would drag on to late spring or early summer. Even if Rossi wins his case, state law requires a 45-day notice before an election, which means the earliest a revote could occur might be June.
While Lane tries to put the onus on the Democrats, it's obvious that the judge plans to proceed very carefully in reviewing arguments closely and examining facts thoroughly. The Republicans have a mighty task ahead—the unseating of a sitting governor. Democratic lawyers intend to do everything they can to hamper their case.
Judge Bridges also scheduled a hearing for Friday, Feb. 4, on what the Democrats call the fundamental jurisdictional questions. Republican lawyers wanted to get those concerns dismissed without a hearing, but the judge is treating them quite seriously. Democrat McDonald says, "The judge certainly did not think the subject had been answered by the Republican papers" filed in the Chelan County court. The Democrats claim four things: that the state constitution does not give the courts jurisdiction over a gubernatorial election, granting that power to the Legislature; if a court does have jurisdiction, it's the state Supreme Court; there's no constitutional provision for holding a revote for governor; and Rossi doesn't have the evidence he needs to even file a lawsuit.
Rossi's camp dismisses the Democrats' arguments, saying the state constitution allows the Legislature to pass a law dealing with election contests, and that the legislature has done so; superior court has been the trial venue for previous election contests; the courts have ordered a new election as recently as 1975; and all the evidence they need to get a new election is to show election errors—and the county auditors have already admitted mistakes.
National experts following the case do not venture to predict how the judge will rule on the Democrats' jurisdictional arguments. Loyola University Law Professor Rick Hasen says, "It's a serious question, and it's a real mess."
If the Democrats lose their jurisdictional challenge, they will likely appeal the judge's ruling to the state Supreme Court. All of this legal wrangling means one thing: Gov. Gregoire will be in office long enough to complete a very full plate of business with the state Legislature.
On Jan. 19, Gregoire distinguished herself sharply from both her opponent, Rossi, and her mentor, former Gov. Gary Locke. At a press conference unveiling her first package of legislation, Gregoire announced an executive action that will prevent at least 19,000 poor children from losing their Medicaid health insurance. In the 2003 budget, Rossi and Locke cooked up a scheme to reduce the state's health insurance costs by requiring a small payment and lots more paperwork from parents of children who use the Medicaid system. It was a cynical action on the part of state government, since it was widely assumed that many eligible children would be dropped off the Medicaid rolls because the new requirements were too onerous. In fact, according to the Children's Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, the number of kids dropped was unexpectedly high—27,500 lost health insurance due to the Medicaid changes, bringing the number of uninsured Washington children to the highest level in a decade. The Children's Alliance had been lobbying Locke for months to stem the bleeding with executive action. On the campaign trail, Gregoire pledged to find a way to insure all the children of Washington. She took her first step on the 19th.
Gregoire also announced a package of reforms to address the crisis of the 600,000 other uninsured Washingtonians. The measures, including an aggressive push to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and letting businesses and individuals buy into the state's insurance pools, are the kind of moderate but activist policies that can win Gregoire greater support across the state. If she keeps it up, you have to wonder about Rossi's chances of winning the revote he and the Republicans crave.