Washington state voters who signed petitions to repeal a law enhancing rights for same-sex couples don't enjoy a right to confidentiality, and their names can be disclosed to the public, a federal appeals court panel ruled Thursday.
In a case spurred in part by the angry backlash that greeted supporters of California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage last year, those seeking to repeal the Washington law failed in their bid to keep petition signers anonymous for fear they could face similar harassment.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Washington's Public Records Act providing for disclosure of referendum petition signers is constitutional and serves important public interests. The panel also reversed a federal District Court order preventing disclosure of the names, but with little effect as the U.S. Supreme Court has stayed their release until all appeals have been exhausted.
Protect Marriage Washington, a group that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, collected enough signatures to put a measure repealing the newly expanded rights for state-registered domestic partnerships on the Nov. 3 ballot. The group then challenged the Public Records Act -- another citizen initiative -- as an unconstitutional burden on free expression.
Federal District Judge Benjamin H. Settle in Tacoma ruled in favor of Protect Marriage and two unidentified petition signers a day after they filed their July 28 request to stop the state from revealing the names. The plaintiffs claimed that "there is a reasonable probability that the signatories . . . will be subjected to threats, harassment and reprisal."
They pointed to incidents in California in which Proposition 8 donors identified in campaign finance documents posted online were exposed to protests and boycotts of their businesses.
Washington state officials and groups intervening in support of open government and equal rights for gays argued in defense of disclosure as validation of the initiative process.
"We've argued to the courts that that's an important piece of information," Washington Deputy Solicitor General William B. Collins said of identifying the people behind an initiative drive.
Duane Swinton, a lawyer representing the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said he was gratified by the appeals court ruling because his group considers it "fundamental" for voters to know who is seeking to change the law.
"A lot of times people vote based on who is supporting or who is opposing an issue," Swinton said.
Washington voters, however, won't learn the identities of the repeal proponents before they have to cast their ballots. After the 9th Circuit panel signaled earlier this week that it wasn't going to uphold Settle's stay, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed its own injunction to remain in force until it decides whether to weigh in on the subject. Protect Marriage has 90 days to petition for review.
Protect Marriage advocate Stephen Pidgeon didn't return a phone call seeking comment on the 9th Circuit ruling, handed down by Judges Harry Pregerson, A. Wallace Tashima and N. Randy Smith, appointed to the court by Presidents Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively.