Seattle—The Washington Supreme Court today dealt a blow to civil liberties. In Ventenbergs v. City of Seattle, a divided Court decided that the city of Seattle could violate local entrepreneur Joe Ventenbergs’ constitutional right to earn an honest living by creating construction waste-hauling monopolies for two multi-national corporations, making it illegal for Joe to practice his profession.
“The Court got the law wrong today and Washingtonians will suffer as a result,” said William Maurer, executive director for the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA), which represents Joe Ventenbergs. “The Court ruled that our constitutional rights are less important than protecting two enormous, out-of-state corporations from competition. The sole good news from this decision, however, is that it is so narrow that it affects only hard-working entrepreneurs in the waste-hauling business and not other entrepreneurs throughout the state, who will be able to continue to rely on the protections of our state constitution to combat the creation of government monopolies.”
In a decision released this morning, the Court stated that hauling construction waste is not a private enterprise and “is in the realm belonging to the State and delegated to local governments.” The court found specifically that the provision of waste hauling service is a “government service” and constitutional protections do not apply to government-provided services.
Justice Richard Sanders, joined by Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justice Jim Johnson, dissented, arguing that today’s decision “presents a textbook example of governmental corporate favoritism to advance the profits of the privileged few at the expense, and the extinction, of any potential competitors. It flies in the face of the state’s privileges and immunities clause which was adopted to combat this exact sort of unholy alliance between government and big business, which ultimately not only disserves the excluded businesses but also the public in general.”
In 2004, King County Superior Court declared that the city of Seattle was engaged in corporate favoritism: “[W]hile by contracting with two hauling companies and excluding another, the city did ‘play favorites’ (legitimately or otherwise), the plaintiffs are not entitled to relief under the privileges and immunities clause.”
Maurer, who argued the case before the court, noted that the court’s decision does not give any guidance on what constitutes a “government service.” “This decision gives far too much deference to local governments to decide what are ‘government services,’ which apparently means that in the provision of these services, governments now have a blank check to violate fundamental constitutional rights. But our constitutional protections are more—not less—important in areas where governmental intervention is highest.”
The case was filed in 2003 on behalf of Joe Ventenbergs, who owns Seattle-based Kendall Trucking, Inc., and Ron Haider, owner of the Lynnwood-based Haider Construction, Inc. Joe sought the opportunity to haul waste from construction and demolition sites and Ron wanted to hire him. The city of Seattle, however, mandates that Ron only use one of two politically connected multi-national corporations. Rather than encourage local entrepreneurs like Joe and Ron, the city made it illegal for them to do business with each other.
“The Washington Constitution was weakened today,” said IJ-WA staff attorney Michael Bindas. “Unfortunately, there is a trend in our state of the government protecting large corporations while violating the civil rights of hard-working, small entrepreneurs through discriminatory regulations. We will not rest until this trend is reversed and the right of all Washingtonians to earn an honest living has been secured, even when a government agency decides to call its economic favoritism ‘a government service.’”