The effort to recall Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam ran aground long ago, but a lingering court battle continues to create complications for future recall attempts.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan settled a long-standing dispute surrounding the Washam recall campaign. In essence, Bryan’s ruling found that a state law limiting contributions to recall campaigns didn’t apply to the Washam recall effort.
That was a victory for Puyallup resident Robin Farris, who led the recall effort, and a loss for the state Public Disclosure Commission, which argued for upholding the contribution limits. The argument had sailed up to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and back.
Farris and Tacoma attorneys Jeff Helsdon and Tom Oldfield led the argument, but a libertarian advocacy group, the Institute for Justice, also joined the argument, siding with recall backers.
Throughout the recall process, Oldfield and Helsdon helped Farris at no cost. Their services were listed as in-kind contributions worth almost $20,000. The PDC ruled the services counted as individual contributions, and violated the state cap.
Initially, the PDC suggested Farris should raise money to repay her lawyers, who didn’t want any payment. In April, the commission settled for a $250 fine.
Last week’s ruling was meaningless in one sense: the recall campaign was already over. It stalled in September 2011, when Farris and other recall backers narrowly missed the threshold of 65,495 signatures required to place the recall on the ballot.
However, Bryan’s ruling left a key question unanswered. Recall backers argued that the state law limiting recall campaign contributions was unconstitutional “on its face,” and a violation of free-speech rights.
That would have nullified the law in all recall campaigns, not just the Washam matter – but Bryan’s ruling didn’t go that far. Instead, the judge limited his ruling to the Washam matter alone. He chose not to address the overall question of constitutionality.
The decision created a new dilemma. Helsdon and Oldfield, the attorneys who represented the Washam recall backers, are also representing residents of the City of Pacific, who are trying to recall Mayor Cy Sun.
The federal court ruling means the contribution limits in state law still apply to the recall campaign in Pacific. That starts the argument all over again.
As a result, attorneys have appealed Bryan’s decision to the Ninth Circuit, seeking a definitive answer to the constitutional question.
“We won the decision from Robin’s standpoint and our standpoint,” Helsdon said Tuesday. “We’re out of the woods in the Washam case – but now we’ve got the Cy Sun case.”
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486