By Steve Wehrly, Journal reporter
What's the problem?
In 2012, that question was asked again and again by critics as the Charter Review Commission fashioned its amendments to the county charter.
Now, ironically, that same question was posed in legal language by San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord in support of the charter amendments and against a legal challenge filed days after the amendments were approved in November by the voters.
With Superior Court Judge John M. Meyer of Skagit County presiding — San Juan County Superior Court Judge Don Eaton recused himself from the proceedings — the case of Carlson, Gonce & Bossler v. San Juan County reached its climax Feb. 19 before a packed courtroom inside the San Juan County Courthouse.
Although numerous legal and procedural issues were raised, the focus of plaintiffs' attorney Stephanie O'Day's case was that "fundamental voting rights are affected" by residency districts of unequal population, even when, or perhaps especially when, all of the county's voters are allowed to vote for all candidates.
"Because fundamental voting rights are affected, the court must apply a 'strict scrutiny' test," O'Day said.
"Strict scrutiny" is the highest standard for determining the constitutionality of a statute, often a statute dealing with the Bill of Rights (the First through Tenth Amendments) or the Fourteenth Amendment.
O'Day argued that because residency districts violate the "one-man, one-vote" requirements of both the Washington state and U.S. constitutions, the charter should be subject to strict scrutiny under Fourteenth Amendment principles of due process and equal protection of the law. She cited Washington and U.S. constitutions and constitutional cases as the basis for asking Judge Meyer to halt the election for the three-person council, scheduled for April 23.
Gaylord countered with statutory and constitutional law citations of his own, asserting that because voting under the charter amendments is county-wide and because "all voters vote for all candidates," the charter was "not an infringement of anybody's fundamental right to vote." The action of the CRC, according to Gaylord, is therefore "not a constitutional decision, but instead is a political decision," that should be judged by the lesser standard of "rational basis" rather than strict scrutiny.
Since the contentious CRC meetings of a year ago, local voters have approved the three charter amendments replacing the six-person council with a three-person council, elected (by district) three members to the six-member council, and picked candidates county-wide to campaign for the three-member council in the upcoming April election.
Gaylord said the plaintiffs have failed to show that the county-wide voting scheme, which was used by the county prior to enactment of the charter in 2005, had stopped or even diluted one voter's vote. Residency districts apply to where a candidate lives, not to who may vote for that candidate, said Gaylord.
The all-day hearing reviewed other allegations such as voter confusion and "more than one subject," and featured brief statements from current and former county council members, whom Judge Meyer had earlier "joined" to the case as necessary parties.
All current council members, with exception of Bob Jarman, who is recovering from recent heart surgery, were in the courtroom, along with former council members Richard Fralick and Lovel Pratt. All except Fralick, who did not run for re-election, were also invited to submit written statements to the judge by Feb. 25.
Meyer said that he probably has enough information to decide the case, and that he expects to do so well before the April 23 final elections, but that an additional hearing in which evidence and testimony would be provided remains a possibility.
In closing, Meyer noted that trial court judges rarely face the kind of complex constitutional issues found in this case, and he commended the attorneys for both sides. Supporters of both sides should be satisfied that they had been well and competently represented, he said.
"It's a case for the legal history books," one observer said as she walked away from the courtroom.