U.S. Supreme Court to hear Ref. 71 case
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided it will hear the case surrounding the public release of names of those who signed petitions for Referendum 71, with any decision likely to have broad ramifications.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear the case surrounding the public release of names of voters who signed petitions for Referendum 71.
At stake is whether a portion of Washington's Public Records Act, which requires publicly disclosing the identities of those who sign referendum or initiative petitions, violates the signers' First Amendment rights.
"It's very encouraging that (the Supreme Court justices) have obviously treated this case with great sensitivity and respect for the privacy rights of citizens. ... And now they're going to consider those rights on the merits," said James Bopp Jr., attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, the organization that brought the case.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, the defendant in the case, said: "We welcome an opportunity to go to the highest court in the land to defend Washington citizens' strong desire for transparency, openness and accountability in government, and the public's belief that our state and local public documents must be available for public inspection....
"It is not surprising," Reed said, "that the Supreme Court would be intrigued by a nationally-watched case dealing with disclosure, First Amendment considerations and public discourse during the Internet era."
Arguments before the court is likely to take place in April, and a possible decision in June.
A Supreme Court decision will likely have ramifications beyond this state.
Twenty-seven states have either referendum or initiative processes, and the Internet has made it far easier to publicize the names of those who sign petitions for such ballot measures.
The case before the Supreme Court stems from Referendum 71, which last fall asked voters to approve or reject a recently expanded domestic-partnership law, granting "everything but marriage" state benefits to gay and lesbian couples. The measure was approved.
Religious conservatives and other traditional marriage-supporters, who gathered some 138,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot hoping voters would throw out the expanded partnership law, argued those names should not be disclosed, saying signers feared harassment. Some gay-rights activists had asked for the names under the state's public-records act, and said they would post them on a searchable Web site.
Protect Marriage Washington sued to block release of the names, saying the state's public disclosure law "chills free speech ... particularly when it is reasonably probable that those exercising their First Amendment rights would be subjected to threats and harassment."
But the Secretary of State's Office has said all along that signatures are clearly subject to disclosure under the state's Public Records Act. The act, approved by voters in 1972, is intended to provide transparency in government. The Secretary of State's Office also argues that disclosure is warranted because petition signers act as quasi-legislators in putting measures up to public vote.
A federal judge sided with Protect Marriage Washington, blocking release of the names, but his decision was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court stayed the 9th Circuit ruling until it could consider whether to give the case a full hearing.
A Supreme Court ruling would also impact a lawsuit filed by initiative promoter Tim Eyman, who sought to block the release of names on several of his initiative petitions. The Thurston County judge in that case blocked the release of names on all voter petitions, pending the Supreme Court decision on the Referendum 71 case.
Independent of any court actions, two dueling bills have been proposed in the Legislature this session addressing the issue. One clarifies that the names, addresses and signatures of those who sign initiative and referendum petitions are subject to public disclosure. The other exempts such petitions from public inspection and copying, though still allows the Secretary of State's Office to verify the signatures.
It was not immediately clear how the Supreme Court decision affects those bills.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.