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31.1.12

Mistaken ruling opts for convenience despite clear intent

A perplexing and wrong-headed judicial decision temporarily has the state off the hook for committing at least $150 million in revenues, but hopefully an appeal will restore constitutional dignity to the matter.

As previously noted, at issue was the timing of the state’s having to pay back withdrawals from the Budget Stabilization Fund, which serves as a bank account for the state from which to make limited withdrawals in limited circumstances to help produce a balanced budget. As written, the state Constitution required, under the recent set of fiscal circumstances encountered by the state, that an amount taken from it in 2010 to have been paid back already (essentially, almost immediately), while a conflicting state law passed a year prior did not mandate this. The state accepted the law’s rendering for the pending budgetary year.

After the fiscal 2011 budget went into effect, interested parties sued to force immediate payback, citing that the Constitution takes precedence over conflicting state law. But they postponed the matter when the Legislature in 2011 offered up a Constitutional amendment that would write into the Constitution the statute’s interpretation. Last fall, that measure failed at the ballot box, and the suit resumed.

Yet 19th District Judge Kay Bates took an expansive view to rule in favor of giving the statute precedence. She ruled that the statute wasn’t unconstitutional, buying the state’s argument that the Constitution did not spell out the timing of repayments into the Fund, despite the precise wording of Art. VII Sec. 10.3 that states “All revenues received in each fiscal year by the state … shall be deposited in the fund” (emphasis added). While there is no exact specification such as “deposited in the same fiscal year,” the intent seems clear, even as nobody appeared to foresee the situation in which the state found itself.

Further, by its placing the amendment on the ballot last year, the state admitted as much that this was the proper interpretation, signaling its understanding and presumed intent; otherwise, why go to the trouble of the amendment in the first place? The people did the same in their consideration and rejection of the language. So now, after defeat of its clarifying measure, the state suddenly decided there’s a different meaning to it.

In these kinds of rulings, judges should not substitute arguments of convenience, but, when any ambiguity exists at all, rely upon their best judgment as to what the people directly meant by that language, or by what their representatives the Legislature meant as an indirect interpretation of the people’s wishes. In this instance, by proposing the amendment legislators admitted they needed the language change to support their interpretation, and the people specifically rejected that formulation, implying they intended interpretation along the lines of the plaintiffs’ view. Why this unforced judicial error occurred is a mystery, but correction of it hopefully soon will occur.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo!

You nailed it.

It is embarrassing to have people like this on the bench.

Actually, despite the erroneous newspaper reports, she did not rule on the merits of the constitutional issue, but instead wrongly declared that the motion for summary judgment procedure leading to the hearing was not proper. None of the parties urged or agued for such a decision (especially since it was so obviously incorrect).

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