State of Emergency: Washington’s Use of Emergency Clauses and the People’s Right to Referendum

With all due respect, and with the earnest desire not to seem either censorious or facetious, we feel that we must say frankly and in all seriousness that the custom of attaching emergency clauses to all sorts of bills, many of which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as actually emergent, within the meaning of the test laid down in [Article II, § 1(b) of the Washington Constitution], has become so general as to make it appear, in the light of recent experience, that a number of those statements can no longer be deemed controlling.

Importing a simulcast race of regional or national interest on horse race days; exempting a horse racing license from public inspection; farmland preservation; metropolitan park districts; resolving manufactured/mobile home landlord and tenant disputes; and hosting the national conference of lieutenant governors are just a few subjects of recent legislation in which the Washington Legislature included an emergency clause after deciding prompt action was needed. While prompt legislative action to problems is desirable, in Washington the inclusion of emergency clauses in bills comes at a price to democracy. A bill that is emergent, as defined in the Washington Constitution, is exempt from the people’s power of referendum. Since the adoption of the referendum in Washington, conflict has existed between the legislature’s desire for bills to take effect immediately and the people’s power of referendum.

When faced with a bill relating to the unification of control and jurisdiction over the sale, reforestation, and administration of state timber that included an emergency clause, the Washington Supreme Court voiced its frustration with the legislature’s “custom of attaching emergency clauses to all sorts of bills.” The court found the emergency clause in the bill invalid and strongly rebuked the legislature for its practice of including emergency clauses in too many bills that could not be deemed emergent under the constitution. Unfortunately, this was not the only time legislatures have been criticized for the overuse of emergency clauses, and such criticism continues today.

. . .

Read more


Bryan L. Page, State of Emergency: Washington’s Use of Emergency Clauses and the People’s Right to Referendum, 44. Gonz. L. Rev. 219 (2009).

Comments are closed.