Four Justices of the Washington Supreme Court, the print media, the bloggers and, most if not all of the Seattle Times letter writers have incorrectly characterized the issue decided in the case of Rickert v. State of Washington, Public Disclosure Commission, which was announced on October 4, 2007. The contention that the Supreme Court declared that politicians can lie with impunity as Justice Madsen’s dissent alleged is simply wrong; the Court said no such thing. Unfortunately, the headlines picked up Justice Madsen’s over-statement, few people appear to have actually read the decision, and none of this serves the public interest.
In Rickert, the incumbent and victor in a State legislative race complained to the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) that his opponent, Ms. Rickert, made false statements about his record in her campaign literature. Under the relevant Washington statute, the PDC had authority to examine the complaint, decide what, in fact, was the truth and, in the event of a lie, impose punishment on the perpetrator. The PDC is a commission composed of men and women appointed by Governor Gregoire; they are unelected and unaccountable to anyone. And the PDC concluded that Ms. Rickert’s campaign literature contained false statements and they imposed a $1,000 fine.
The legal issue in the Supreme Court was whether the PDC’s statutory authority to censor political speech ran afoul of free speech rights under the Washington and U.S. Constitutions. In other words, the legal issue was whether the governor’s appointed commission should be allowed to decide for the voters who is telling the truth. The issue was not “can politicians lie” as Justice Madsen’s dissent framed it; the issue was “who gets to decide”.
Our state’s political system has four branches of government: executive, legislative, judicial, and the people. The first words in our State Constitution, Article I, Section 1 say: “All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.” The inherent sovereign power of the people to decide what is best is reflected in the people’s power of referendum and initiative and, ultimately, in the power to elect the judges of our trial courts and the Courts of Appeal and the Justices of the Supreme Court.
In our system, the people will decide where the truth lies not some governor’s appointed commission. And in the race at issue, it appears that the people had little trouble figuring out who was telling the truth – the incumbent was re-elected by an overwhelming majority of 79%.
The headlines missed the point of the Court’s majority decision, which was only that liberty and free speech are at risk when we are compelled to rely on the government to tell us what is the truth, and the dissent’s hyperbole lead the media astray. Justice Madsen wrote that “the majority’s decision is an invitation to lie with impunity” and “honest discourse and honest candidates are lost in the maelstrom.”
Framing the issue in those terms must mean that politicians who lie will always win because the voters are incapable of figuring out the truth. But that was not what happened in this case and it gives the people too little credit to see through the maelstrom and decide for themselves who is telling the truth and who is not.
Let’s let the people decide where the truth lies.