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Washington Supreme Court Finds State In Contempt

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network

In an unprecedented move, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled the state in contempt of court in the McCleary school funding case. However, the justices will wait to impose sanctions until after the 2015 legislative session to give the legislature time to "purge the contempt."

"[C]ontempt is the means by which a court enforces compliance with its lawful orders when they are not followed," reads the five-page order signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen.

The order continues, "If the contempt is not purged by adjournment of the 2015 legislature, the court will reconvene and impose sanctions or other remedial measures."

The order represents a partial victory for the plaintiffs in the McCleary case. They argued in court last week for a finding of contempt and sanctions to be imposed in January if the legislature didn't meet in special session before then to address the court's demands.

Tom Ahearne, the attorney who represents the plaintiffs in the McCleary case, said the Supreme Court has just raised the stakes. “The court itself said ‘state you promised us you’re going to be doing this in 2015, we’re taking your promise, we’re taking you at your word and if you don’t, we will impose sanctions.’ Not ‘we’ll think about it,’ ‘we will,’” he said.

The state argued that the court should hold off on both a finding of contempt and sanctions until after the 2015 legislative session. 

The finding of contempt stems from the legislature's failure to provide the court "a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education" by the 2017-18 school year.

In 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously found in the McCleary case that the state is not meeting its "paramount duty" under the state constitution to amply fund public education. The case was brought by  families of students and a coalition that includes school districts, unions and other groups.

The Washington Supreme Court has retained jurisdiction in the case and requires annual progress reports from the state.