Watson v. City of Seattle, NO. 93723-1.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Washington
Writing for the CourtSTEPHENS, J.
Parties Philip WATSON, an individual; Ray Carter, an individual; Farwest Sports, Inc., d/b/a Outdoor Emporium, a Washington corporation; Precise Shooter, LLC, a Washington limited liability company; the Second Amendment Foundation, Inc., a Washington nonprofit corporation; National Rifle Association of America, Inc, a New York nonprofit association; and National Shooting Sports Foundation, a Connecticut nonprofit association, Appellants, v. CITY OF SEATTLE, a municipality; Ed Murray, Mayor of the City of Seattle, in his official capacity; Seattle Department of Finance and Administrative Services, a department of the City of Seattle; and Glen Lee, Director of Finance and Administrative Services, in his official capacity, Respondents.
Decision Date10 August 2017
Docket NumberNO. 93723-1.

189 Wash.2d 149
401 P.3d 1

Philip WATSON, an individual; Ray Carter, an individual; Farwest Sports, Inc., d/b/a Outdoor Emporium, a Washington corporation; Precise Shooter, LLC, a Washington limited liability company; the Second Amendment Foundation, Inc., a Washington nonprofit corporation; National Rifle Association of America, Inc, a New York nonprofit association; and National Shooting Sports Foundation, a Connecticut nonprofit association, Appellants,
v.
CITY OF SEATTLE, a municipality; Ed Murray, Mayor of the City of Seattle, in his official capacity; Seattle Department of Finance and Administrative Services, a department of the City of Seattle; and Glen Lee, Director of Finance and Administrative Services, in his official capacity, Respondents.

NO. 93723-1.

Supreme Court of Washington.

Argued Feb. 16, 2017
Filed Aug. 10, 2017


Steven Walter Fogg, David Benjamin Edwards, Corr Cronin Michelson Baumgardner Fogg & 1001 4th Ave., Ste. 3900, Seattle, WA, 98154-1051, for Appellants.

Kent Charles Meyer, Carlton W.M. Seu, Seattle City Attorney's Office, 701 5th Ave., Ste. 2050, Seattle, WA, 98104-7095, Franklin Dennis Cordell, Jeffrey Iver Tilden, Gordon Tilden Thomas & Cordell LLP, 1001 4th Ave., Ste. 4000, Seattle, WA, 98154-1007, William Abrams, Sarah Jackel, David Kwasniewski, Laura Edelstein, Steptoe & Johnson, LLP, 1891 Page Mill Road, Suite 200, Palo Alto, CA, 94304, for Respondents.

Anne Elizabeth Egeler, Gregory Kennedy Ziser, Peter B. Gonick, Washington Attorney General's Office, P.O. Box 40100, Olympia, WA, 98504-0100, as Amicus Curiae on behalf of State of Washington.

Todd Christopher Hayes, Harper Hayes PLLC, 600 University St., Ste. 2420, Seattle, WA, 98101-1129, as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Washington Legislators.

Steven L. Gross, Attorney at Law, 250 Madison St., Port Townsend, WA, 98368-5738, as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys.

STEPHENS, J.

189 Wash.2d 155

¶1 This case concerns Seattle Ordinance 124833 (Ordinance), which imposes a "Firearms and Ammunition Tax" on each firearm and round of ammunition sold within the city limits. Its stated purpose is to raise revenue for public health research relating to gun violence and to fund related social programs. Two individual gun purchasers, Phillip Watson and Ray Carter, along with various organizations (hereinafter Watson),1 brought this suit challenging the constitutionality of the Ordinance.

¶2 RCW 9.41.290 forbids the local regulation of guns. Watson argues that the Ordinance is actually a regulation, not a tax, and is preempted by RCW 9.41.290 in any case. Watson also argues that even if the Ordinance is a tax, it exceeds Seattle's delegated taxing authority. The King County Superior Court ruled in favor of Seattle, holding that the Ordinance imposes an authorized tax and that this tax is not preempted by RCW 9.41.290. Watson appealed, and the Court of Appeals certified the matter to this court.

189 Wash.2d 156

¶3 We affirm the trial court. Under Washington law, a charge intended to raise revenue for the public benefit is a tax. While courts should be dubious of regulations masquerading as taxes (and vice versa), in this case Watson offers no convincing evidence that the Ordinance has a regulatory purpose or intent. It is a tax. The Ordinance is also authorized by the broad grant of taxing authority delegated to cities like Seattle. Finally, the Ordinance is not preempted by state law; RCW 9.41.290 preempts only municipal gun "regulation," not taxation.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶4 In August 2015, the Seattle City Council (Council) unanimously passed the Ordinance, and Mayor Ed Murray signed it into

401 P.3d 5

law. The Ordinance imposes a "Firearms and Ammunition Tax" of $25.00 on each firearm and $0.02 to $0.05 per round of ammunition sold within the city limits.2 The tax applies only to licensed retail sellers of guns and ammunition.3 Clerk's Papers (CP) at 76 (applying the tax to "every person engaging within the City in the business of making retail sales of firearms or ammunition"). The Ordinance became effective on January 1, 2016. Id. at 80.

¶5 The Council designed the Ordinance to fund gun safety programs and related public health research. The Ordinance recites that "gun violence directly affects the City and its residents," id. at 68, and notes it is difficult for cities to obtain outside funding for related research. Id. at 67 (stating that Congress has blocked federal funding for gun violence research since 1996). The Council locally funded a 2014 study by the Harborview Injury Prevention

189 Wash.2d 157

and Research Center on the predictors and consequences of gun violence. Id. at 67 (noting that Harborview Medical Center leveraged that research to develop a hospital-based gun violence intervention program). The Council passed the Ordinance in part to create a local source of funding for gun violence research and programming. Id. at 68 ("[T]he City intends to ... provide broad-based public benefits for residents of Seattle ... by funding programs that promote public safety [and] prevent gun violence."). To this end, the Ordinance created the "Firearms and Ammunition Tax Fund," which is authorized to support "basic research" and "programs that promote public safety, prevent gun violence and address in part the cost of gun violence in the City." Id. at 78. The tax will generate an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 per year. Id. at 135.

¶6 Watson challenged the Ordinance in King County Superior Court, alleging that the "tax" imposed under the Ordinance is actually a regulation preempted by state gun laws. CP at 32-35; RCW 9.41.290 (the legislature "fully occupies and preempts the entire field of firearms regulation"). Watson argued in the alternative that even if the Ordinance is a tax, it exceeds Seattle's constitutional taxing authority. In response, Seattle argued that the Ordinance is a tax rather than a regulation, is not preempted by RCW 9.41.290, and is a lawful exercise of Seattle's taxing authority. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in favor of Seattle. In a December 22, 2015 order, the court held that the Ordinance imposes a tax because its primary purpose is to raise revenue; that the tax is authorized by RCW 35.22.280(32) ; and that state preemption does not apply because RCW 9.41.290 preempts conflicting regulations, not taxes. The court granted Seattle's motion and dismissed the case. Watson appealed.

¶7 Division One of the Court of Appeals, pursuant to RCW 2.06.030 and RAP 4.4, certified the following question to this court: "Whether a municipal ordinance imposing a tax on retail firearm and ammunition sales within the municipality

189 Wash.2d 158

is a constitutional and lawful exercise of taxing authority?" Order of Certification, Watson v. City of Seattle, No. 74534-4-1 (Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 14, 2016). We accepted direct review.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8 We review constitutional challenges and questions of statutory interpretation de novo. See, e.g., Okeson v . City of Seattle, 150 Wash.2d 540, 548-49, 78 P.3d 1279 (2003). City ordinances are presumed to be valid and constitutional; the challenging party has the burden of showing unconstitutionality. See State v . Kirwin, 165 Wash.2d 818, 825, 203 P.3d 1044 (2009) ; State v . Immelt, 173 Wash.2d 1, 6, 267 P.3d 305 (2011). As with statutory interpretation, the primary objective of courts interpreting an ordinance is to "ascertain and carry out the legislature's intent" by giving effect to the ordinance's "plain meaning."

401 P.3d 6

Arborwood Idaho, LLC v . City of Kennewick, 151 Wash.2d 359, 367, 89 P.3d 217 (2004) ; see also Bowie v. Dep't of Revenue, 171 Wash.2d 1, 11, 248 P.3d 504 (2011).

ISSUES

(1) Does the Ordinance levy a tax or instead assess a regulatory fee?

(2) If the Ordinance imposes a tax, is that tax within Seattle's taxing authority under RCW 35.22.280(32) ?

(3) Is the Ordinance preempted by RCW 9.41.290 ?

ANALYSIS

¶9 Labeling something a tax does not make it so. Watson argues that Seattle levied a charge on the sale of firearms and ammunition in order to restrict gun sales, making the "tax" imposed by the Ordinance a regulatory fee that is facially preempted by RCW 9.41.290. In the alternative, Watson argues that even if classified as a tax, the

189 Wash.2d 159

Ordinance exceeds Seattle's taxing authority under RCW 35.22.280(32). Watson also asserts an alternative preemption argument not raised below: that RCW 9.41.290 preempts taxation as well as regulation and therefore preempts the Ordinance under either classification.

¶10 We reject each of Watson's arguments. Following Covell v . City of Seattle, 127 Wash.2d 874, 905 P.2d 324 (1995), the Ordinance is a tax because its primary purpose is to raise revenue for public services. To be a valid tax, the Ordinance must be based on a delegation of legislative taxing authority. Here, the Ordinance is authorized by RCW...

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21 practice notes
  • Lakehaven Water & Sewer Dist., Highline Water Dist., & Midway Sewer Dist., Mun. Corporations v. City of Fed. Way, Corp., NO. 96585-4
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • June 18, 2020
    ...a matter of law. CR 56(c). We review questions of statutory interpretation and constitutional law de novo. Watson v. City of Seattle , 189 Wash.2d 149, 158, 401 P.3d 1 (2017). When interpreting a statute, our "fundamental objective is to ascertain and carry out the Legislature's intent, and......
  • King Cnty. v. King Cnty. Water Districts Nos. 20, 45, 49, 90, 111, 119, 125, No. 96360-6
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • December 5, 2019
    ...the city could tax but not regulate the sale of guns, so whether the ordinance at issue was a tax or a regulation was dispositive. 189 Wash.2d 149, 155-56, 401 P.3d 1 (2017). But in Snoqualmie, we held that the Covell factors are too "limited" and "not entirely helpful" when the issue is si......
  • Kunath v. City of Seattle, No 79447-7-I
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • July 15, 2019
    ...any tax").44 Sheehan v. Cent. Puget Sound Reg’I Transit Auth., 155 Wash.2d 790, 796-97, 123 P.3d 88 (2005).45 Watson v. City of Seattle, 189 Wash.2d 149, 158, 401 P.3d 1 (2017) ; Sheehan, 155 Wash.2d at 797, 123 P.3d 88.46 Sheehan, 155 Wash.2d at 797, 123 P.3d 88 (quoting Dep’t of Ecology v......
  • Seven Hills, LLC v. Chelan Cnty., 98730-1
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • September 23, 2021
    ...CONST. art. XI, § 11. This provision, known as "home rule," presumes that local governments are autonomous. Watson v. City of Seattle , 189 Wash.2d 149, 166, 401 P.3d 1 (2017) (citing Hugh Spitzer, "Home Rule" vs. "Dillon's Rule" for Washington Cities , 38 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 809 (2015) ; Ci......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
21 cases
  • Lakehaven Water & Sewer Dist., Highline Water Dist., & Midway Sewer Dist., Mun. Corporations v. City of Fed. Way, Corp., NO. 96585-4
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • June 18, 2020
    ...a matter of law. CR 56(c). We review questions of statutory interpretation and constitutional law de novo. Watson v. City of Seattle , 189 Wash.2d 149, 158, 401 P.3d 1 (2017). When interpreting a statute, our "fundamental objective is to ascertain and carry out the Legislature's intent, and......
  • King Cnty. v. King Cnty. Water Districts Nos. 20, 45, 49, 90, 111, 119, 125, No. 96360-6
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • December 5, 2019
    ...the city could tax but not regulate the sale of guns, so whether the ordinance at issue was a tax or a regulation was dispositive. 189 Wash.2d 149, 155-56, 401 P.3d 1 (2017). But in Snoqualmie, we held that the Covell factors are too "limited" and "not entirely helpful" when the issue is si......
  • Kunath v. City of Seattle, No 79447-7-I
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • July 15, 2019
    ...any tax").44 Sheehan v. Cent. Puget Sound Reg’I Transit Auth., 155 Wash.2d 790, 796-97, 123 P.3d 88 (2005).45 Watson v. City of Seattle, 189 Wash.2d 149, 158, 401 P.3d 1 (2017) ; Sheehan, 155 Wash.2d at 797, 123 P.3d 88.46 Sheehan, 155 Wash.2d at 797, 123 P.3d 88 (quoting Dep’t of Ecology v......
  • Seven Hills, LLC v. Chelan Cnty., No. 98730-1
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • September 23, 2021
    ...CONST. art. XI, § 11. This provision, known as "home rule," presumes that local governments are autonomous. Watson v. City of Seattle , 189 Wash.2d 149, 166, 401 P.3d 1 (2017) (citing Hugh Spitzer, "Home Rule" vs. "Dillon's Rule" for Washington Cities , 38 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 809 (2015) ; Ci......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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