U.S. Supreme Court accepts Ref. 71 case
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.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Friday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case involving the release of names of Referendum 71 petition signers was greeted warmly by traditional-marriage supporters but with wariness by some gay-rights leaders, who contend it plays into a broader strategy by gay-rights opponents to operate without scrutiny.
At issue before the court is whether signing a ballot petition is a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment. And if so, whether a portion of the state's Public Records Act violates the signers' First Amendment rights. The law subjects to public disclosure the identities of those who sign referendum or initiative petitions.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case that seeks to protect the rights of citizens who support a traditional definition of marriage to speak freely and without fear," said James Bopp Jr., attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, the group that brought the suit.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, a respondent 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."
Arguments before the court could occur in April, and a decision could come in June.
A Supreme Court decision will likely have ramifications beyond this state — and beyond gay-rights issues.
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 that grants "everything but marriage" state benefits to gay and lesbian couples. Voters approved the measure.
In the months leading up to the vote, religious conservatives and other traditional-marriage supporters had gathered some 138,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, hoping voters would throw out the expanded partnership law. They argued that the names should not be disclosed, saying signers feared harassment. Some gay-rights supporters had requested the names under the state's Public Records Act, and said they would post them on a searchable Web site.
The Supreme Court's decision to take the case was the second time this week that the high court acted on a case in which gay-rights opponents said they feared publicity could lead to harassment.
On Wednesday, the high court ordered a halt to plans to televise the federal-court trial challenging California's Proposition 8, the voter-approved ballot measure of 2008 banning gay marriage.
Some gay-rights leaders see these developments as part of a national effort by certain conservative groups to get around public-disclosure laws.
The irony is that the groups saying they fear harassment "are the very groups promoting laws, referendums, ballot measures designed to result in legal or actual harm to many (lesbian and gay) Americans," said Anne Levinson, chairwoman of Washington Families Standing Together, another respondent in the case before the Supreme Court.
Bopp, the attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, says traditional-marriage advocates have good reason to resist disclosure of their names. He said he has affidavits from almost 100 people who say they were victims of vandalism or harassment for supporting Proposition 8.
Gary Randall, a leader of Protect Marriage Washington, said organization leaders sued to block release of petition signers' names in the belief that signing a petition is akin to voting — a protected free-speech right that could be chilled if people fear harassment.
But the Secretary of State's Office has said all along that signatures are subject to disclosure under the state's Public Records Act. 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 Supreme Court ruling also would likely affect a lawsuit filed by initiative promoter Tim Eyman, who sought to block the release of names on several of his initiative petitions. A Thurston County judge in that case blocked the release of names on all voter petitions, pending Supreme Court action on the Referendum 71 case.
Independent of any court actions, two dueling bills have been proposed in the Legislature — one clarifying that the names, addresses and signatures of those who sign petitions are subject to disclosure, the other to withhold petitions from public inspection and copying.
It was not immediately clear how the Supreme Court decision to take the case might affect those bills.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or email@example.com
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.