A two-year-old gubernatorial veto gets its day in court: A preview of the next separation-of-powers case?

The state Supreme Court yesterday heard oral arguments in Washington State Legislature v. The Honorable Jay Inslee (TVW coverage). In The Seattle Times, Joseph O’Sullivan reports

The case involved in Tuesday’s hearing stretches back to 2019, when Inslee signed a new, two-year statewide transportation budget — and vetoed lines inside sections of the bill.

The language he vetoed would have prohibited state transportation officials from considering different fuel types as a factor in choosing grantees for some grant programs being administered.

O’Sullivan notes that Tuesday’s hearing comes as a pair of other, controversial gubernatorial vetoes have sparked significant separation of powers issues.

The legal struggle has come to a head just weeks after the governor frustrated lawmakers with another controversial veto that could draw a legal challenge, when he signed into law the new clean-fuels legislation.

Things do move slowly in the legal system. As the ST notes, the state Supreme Court receives the 2019 case after the governor lost in court last year.

The Washington Legislature sued to challenge those vetoes, and last year, a Thurston County Superior Judge ruled that the governor overstepped his authority.

The court generally defers to the Legislature’s designation of what is considered a section inside a bill, wrote Judge Carol Murphy, “unless it is obviously designed to circumvent the governor’s veto power …”

But the 2019-21 transportation budget’s relevant sections do “not show obvious manipulation” to circumvent the governor’s powers, Murphy wrote in the ruling.

Back in 2019, we wrote that the issues involved in the Legislature’s challenge seemed to us nontrivial. It’s not clear when the court will rule. Nor will we be able to assume that the ruling on the 2019 vetoes presages the ruling on the expected challenges to this year’s climate change vetoes (about which see here, here, and here).

But as the bipartisan challenge to the governor’s exercise of his veto power suggest, the Legislature is properly protective of its policymaking role.