High Court Hears Arguments On Privacy Of Petition Signers

High Court Hears Arguments On Privacy Of Petition Signers

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) Individuals who signed a referendum petition opposing Washington state's "everything but marriage" same-sex domestic partner law have a right to keep their identities private, an attorney representing the signers argued April 28 before the U.S. Supreme Court (John Doe #1, et al. v. Sam Reed, et al., No. 09-559, U.S. Sup.).

Releasing the identities serves no purpose and only open the signers up to harassment, James Bopp Jr. of Terre Haute, Ind., argued on behalf of the petition signers.  He added that if signatures need to be verified, it is for the court, not the public, to do.

But Attorney General Robert M. McKenna of Olympia, Wash., argued on behalf of Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed that petitions are public records.  "This is because the Secretary of State's first step after receiving submitted petitions is to take them to his archiving section and to have them digitized.  As soon as they are digitized they are available on disks for anyone who requests them.  Then the verification process begins," he argued. 

Washington State Sen. Ed Murray introduced Senate Bill 5688 on Jan. 28, 2009.  The bill was designed to expand the rights of state-registered same-sex partners to be equivalent to those of married couples.  The legislation is often referred to as the "everything but marriage" domestic partnership bill.  The Senate passed the bill in March 2009 after various amendments, and the House of Representatives passed it in April 2009. 

In May 2009, Washington resident Larry Stickney notified Reed that he intended to circulate a referendum petition related to SB 5688.  Within less than two weeks, Protect Marriage Washington was created with the purpose of circulating the petition and encouraging voters to reject SB 5688.

On July 25, Protect Marriage Washington submitted its petition with more than 138,500 signatures to Reed.  The amount of signatures exceeded the number necessary to place a referendum question on the ballot.

Meanwhile, Protect Marriage Washington claimed that several groups have sought to publish the names and addresses of the people who signed its petition.  Protect Marriage Washington and two John Does filed a complaint on July 28 against Reed and the state's public records officer in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, seeking to bar the disclosure of the names.

Once the preliminary injunction was granted, Reed appealed to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.  The appellate panel issued a three-paragraph order on Oct. 15 staying the trial court order.  Protect Marriage Washington and the two John Does took the matter to the high court, arguing that requiring the public release of the names of the signers would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

[Editor's Note:  Full coverage will be in the May issue of Mealey's Litigation Report: Data and Identity Security.  In the meantime, the oral arguments transcript is available at www.mealeysonline.com or by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844.  Document #74-100528-004T.  For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.]

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For more information, call editor Bajeerah LaCava at 610-205-1102, or e-mail her at bajeerah.lacava@lexisnexis.com.