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Originally published October 20, 2009 at 12:47 PM | Page modified October 20, 2009 at 8:01 PM

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U.S. Supreme Court: Ref. 71 names to remain sealed for now

The U.S. Supreme Court today ordered that signatures collected to get Referendum 71 on Washington's ballot are to remain sealed until it decides whether to hear an appeal in the case.

Seattle Times staff reporter

In a rare move, the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered that signatures collected to get Referendum 71 on the November ballot should continue to be sealed until the court decides whether it will hear an appeal in the case — a process that could take up to a year.

The 8-to-1 decision by the high court continues an order issued Monday by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had temporarily blocked a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordering release of the names. Justice John Paul Stevens voted to uphold the appeals court ruling, releasing the names.

Protect Marriage Washington had sued the state of Washington to block release of Ref. 71 petition signers' names, saying to make the names public would chill signers' First Amendment free-speech rights.

The Supreme Court said its order will remain in effect while the court considers filings from both sides to reach a decision about whether to take up Protect Marriage's request to reverse the appeals court ruling.

Constitutional law experts say the court's action does not signal how it might come down on this free-speech issue should it decide to hear the case, but is simply an effort to maintain the status quo, established this summer when U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle of Tacoma issued a restraining order blocking release of the names.

They point out that the names, once released, couldn't be recalled — something akin to the un-ringing of a bell.

Ref. 71 asks voters to approve or reject the most recent expansion of the state's domestic-partnership law, granting marriage-like state benefits to registered gay and senior couples.

Protect Marriage, which opposes the state's domestic partnership law, had collected signatures to get it on the ballot in hopes of having it recalled.

It has maintained that releasing the names is a violation of signers' First Amendment free-speech rights, while the state argued that the petition signature process is public and that signers give up any rights to privacy when they sign them.

James Bopp, attorney for Protect Marriage, said while he plans to make prompt filings, he doesn't expect the court to decide whether to accept the case until at least next June.

"It's extremely rare to get an order like this," Bopp said. "The court apparently recognizes the important issues involved and the potentially devastating consequences of disclosure....

"It protects the names until the court has an opportunity to review the case on appeal," he said.

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In a statement, Secretary of State Sam Reed said: "The Supreme Court is simply preserving the status quo while opponents of disclosure get their full day in court, and we respect that, " Reed said.

"We continue to support the view of the Ninth Circuit and will do our very best to uphold the voters' desire for transparent and accountable government."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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