Recalls are as old as America itself, and they have certainly gotten no less messy over the centuries.

Washington state has particularly stringent guidelines for when an elected official can and cannot be removed from office. In light of the recent petition to oust Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, it is more important than ever to understand the full process.

In three minutes, UW Law Professor Hugh Spitzer outlines the legal framework for how recalls work, and he answers questions about the standards petitioning electors must meet in order to successfully give the boot to a political office-holder.

Read the Transcript

Hugh Spitzer: I'm Hugh Spitzer and I'm a law professor at the University of Washington

Three-Minute Legal Tips: What should an average person know about Washington state recalls?

HS: So, in contrast with some other states, Washington prohibits recalls against public officials for political purposes or for policy choices that some people just don't like or for managerial mistakes. Our state law allows recalls of virtually any public officer, but only if that elected official engages in substantial wrongful conduct that affects or interferes with the performance of public duty. The recall statute says that the petitioners have to file a detailed description of wrongful conduct or wrongful acts and they have to have some facts to back them up. And so recall petitions are routinely thrown out in Washington by our courts because they just have nebulous complaints about a public official or they complain about policy or management choices.

TMLT: How does a recall get started?

HS: It starts with a petition from electors, that is registered voters, and the percentage of voters that have to sign a petition varies depending on whether it's at the state level or the local level or it's determined by, for example, a city charter.

TMLT: Are there any elected officials who can’t be recalled?

HS: Not really, the elected public officials, all of them, according to the state constitution are subject to recall.

TMLT: How long does a recall usually take?

HS: So, that depends on whether or not there's litigation when people file a petition or the form of a petition that they want to go out and get signatures on. It's often challenged by the public official involved and so that'll go to Superior Court pretty quickly to determine whether it's appropriate under the statute but then it might get an appeal and it might be appealed to the Court of Appeals. It might be appealed further to the state Supreme Court and this can happen and go on for a year.

TMLT: Why don’t people just wait until the elected official’s term ends instead of recalling them?

HS: So, obviously, if there's just policy differences you got to wait until the term ends and then you can oppose that person at the next election, but if you have an official who's actually broken the law, committed so-called misfeasance or malfeasance, there might be some good reasons to get that person out of the job right away.

TMLT: What positions are most commonly recalled?

HS: So, we see recall petitions filed against mayors more than anything else, particularly in small towns where there tend to be sometimes factions. People are grumpy with each other in the community and they'll go after one group, will go after the mayor, whoever he or she is.