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How car tabs decision addressed a racist 60-year-old Washington court ruling

Washington State Supreme Court. (Harvey Barrison, Flickr)

Last week, the Supreme Court of Washington State struck down I-976, a ballot measure that would have enacted $30 car tabs statewide. Buried in a footnote in its ruling, the court also struck down a 60-year-old decision that, at the time, had allowed cemeteries to discriminate based on race.

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I-976 was struck down by the court for violating the state’s long-held single subject rule, which prevents initiatives from packing unrelated measures into a single piece of legislation. In 1960’s Price v. Evergreen Cemetery Co. of Seattle ruling, the court ruled on a case where a measure had included “a number of things having to do with cemetery boards and endowment care funds,” University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show.

Also baked in was a provision saying that cemeteries couldn’t discriminate based on race, which the court decided violated that single-subject rule. The footnote from the state Supreme Court’s ruling on I-976 took issue with that.

“What the footnote says is the court got it wrong on the single subject issue because the title was pretty broad, as an act relating to the regulation of cemeteries,” Spitzer said.

Numerous laws passed by lawmakers in the interim have long since outlawed discrimination by businesses, but the court felt compelled to overturn the 1960 ruling nonetheless, having hinted in June that it would aim to address past mistakes where racism had been codified by Washington’s highest court.

“The court said, ‘You know, when we run across something like that, where there’s some old racism built into an opinion, we’ll do something about that,’ and so they have taken the opportunity to do that,” Spitzer said.

Ultimately, the goal from the court is to tackle past rulings that could be construed as racist, while acknowledging a history of discrimination. In overturning 1960’s Price v. Evergreen Cemetery Co. of Seattle, the state Supreme Court labeled the case “both incorrect and harmful.”

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“As judges, we must recognize the role we have played in devaluing black lives,” the footnote reads. “The Price concurrence is an example of the unfortunate role we have played.”

The court also pointed to a problematic opinion from then-Justice Joseph Mallery, who had actively opposed desegregation, and had a history of ruling against anti-discrimination laws targeted at businesses.

“There was some awful language in a concurring opinion from Justice Mallery, which was very critical of the civil rights movement,” Spitzer said.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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