Washington justices uphold $18M fine in GMO-labeling case

The Washington Supreme Court has narrowly upheld an $18 million fine levied against an association of large food brands that funneled dark money into a state political campaign

The 5-4 decision Thursday found that the penalty against the Grocery Manufacturers Association — now known as the Consumer Brands Association — did not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on excessive fines.

The association failed to register as a political committee in the state, did not disclose which companies contributed the campaign money and filed no campaign-finance reports until after Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued.

As part of the lawsuit, the state uncovered evidence that one association executive noted during a meeting that having a pooled campaign account would “shield individual companies from public disclosure and possible criticism.”

“The GMA’s offense struck at the core of open elections,” Chief Justice Steven González wrote for the state supreme court's majority. “The grave nature and broad extent of GMA’s offense suggests the penalty is not grossly disproportional.”

The dissenting justices, led by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, said that the association’s failure to file campaign disclosure reports was serious for a reporting violation but that it was only a reporting violation. She called the $18 million penalty “grossly disproportionate” to that offense.

The justices previously found that the Grocery Manufacturers Association's violations were intentional, but sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether the fine was excessive. The 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits excessive fines.

The GMO-labeling measure, known as Initiative 522, failed by a vote of 51% to 49%.