June 24th, 2010
02:36 PM ET
8 years ago

Justices uphold public disclosure of statewide petitions

Washington (CNN) - A state law that would make public the names of people signing a petition for a voter referendum against greater rights for same-sex partners has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

At issue in this free speech and privacy dispute was whether officials in Washington state properly decided there was a "compelling public interest" when opting to release the names of gay rights opponents who voluntarily signed a statewide petition. The court by an 8-1 vote on Thursday decided in favor of the state.

"Public disclosure promotes transparency and accountability in the electoral process to an extent other measures cannot," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. "Public disclosure of referendum petitions in general is substantially related to the important interest of preserving the integrity of the electoral process."

Gov. Christine Gregoire last year signed a bill approved by the legislature affording same-sex couples, as well as domestic partners over the age of 62, the same "rights, responsibilities, and obligations" given married spouses. It is commonly called the "Everything But Marriage" bill.

State law allows such measures to be put to a voter referendum. A group called Protect Marriage Washington, which opposed expanded rights for same-sex couples, was able to gather more than 138,000 supporting signatures, qualifying the question for last November's ballot. Voters, asked in Referendum 71 to approve or reject the law, narrowly approved it, marking the first time a state's voters backed a gay equality measure at the ballot box.

The two sides of the debate now are at odds over whether the identities of the referendum's signers are considered public records.

The high court had debated whether signing a referendum is considered public political speech - permitting release of the names - or anonymous speech, allowing greater First Amendment protection to privacy.

This ruling could affect about two dozen states that allow citizens to place an initiative or referendum on the ballot.

Protect Marriage Washington says its backers could be harassed if officials release the names.

James Bopp, the attorney representing gay rights opponents, told the court, "With modern technology, it only takes a few dedicated supporters and a computer who are willing to put this information on the Internet, MapQuest it," which he claimed happened to California residents opposing a gay marriage law.

The controversial law's open disclosure provision "encouraged people to harass" those against expanded rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders.

But Roberts said most such referendums involve more mundane matters like state revenue, property taxes, and public education. "Voters care about such issues, some quite deeply - but there is no reason to assume that any burdens imposed by disclosure of typical referendum petitions would be remotely like the burdens plaintiffs fear in this case," he wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito agreed the state law in general does not violate the Constitution, but said voters in this specific case and others may still be able to justify non-disclosure if they can rationally prove possible harassment.

Justice Clarence Thomas went further, writing in dissent that the Washington voters had established sufficient grounds to have the law tossed out.

Several local groups in Washington state - including KnowThyNeighbor.org and WhoSigned.org - have signaled their intent to place the names on the Internet and make them searchable. Protect Marriage Washington, in its appeal to the Supreme Court, claimed their opponents have promoted "the goal of encouraging individuals (supporting gay rights) to have 'personal' and 'uncomfortable' conversations with petition signers."

A similar has come up in relation to a pending federal court case in California. A federal judge is considering whether a voter referendum against same-sex marriage is an unconstitutional violation of civil rights.

At issue there is Proposition 8, which California voters approved in November 2008, prompting a constitutional appeal by several same-sex couples. A ruling in that case could come at any time.

Same-sex marriage opponents in California have claimed that wider public exposure of their testimony on the stand could subject them to harassment.

CNN filed a legal brief, along with 21 other news organizations and media rights groups, supporting public disclosure of the voting information in the Washington state appeal.

That case is John Doe No. 1, John Doe No. 2, and Protect Marriage Washington v. Reed (09-559).

Filed under: Supreme Court
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Shucks

    Quit denying people their rights because of the sexual orientation. With Religions being so above reproach these days, I would rather have a gay couple living next to me than an avowed "christian". PERIOD!!!!!!

    June 24, 2010 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  2. get real

    Any bets on whether John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 are closeted gays and are having a torrid love affair?

    June 24, 2010 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  3. AR

    Next, let's pass a law that requires publicly releasing who everybody voted for. In fact, let's have the government put an electronic sign in front of everybody's house to say who they voted for.

    June 24, 2010 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  4. AR

    So the idea here is that these two organizations publicly stated "yeah, we're gonna harass these people" and this idiot Roberts says "well in MOST cases this wouldn't happen".

    This has to be the dumbest idea in the world.

    June 24, 2010 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  5. chuck

    So they're against it, but don't have the guts to admit it? How courageous of them. Typical. I wonder how many of them have gay or lesbian family member who they'll have to have that "uncomfortable" conversation with.

    June 24, 2010 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  6. Dano

    Darn now the homophobes won't be able to anonymously sign petitions to deny gay people their rights as American citizens.

    June 24, 2010 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  7. GI Joe

    Our republican heavy supreme court is giving away citizens rights and selling them to corporate interests.

    It's time to change rules for how long that bunch can stay on the dole while working against US Citizens.

    June 24, 2010 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  8. Bertina

    Score for transparency.

    June 24, 2010 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  9. Rob in MO

    The Supremes finally got something right.

    June 24, 2010 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  10. Henry Miller, Libertarian


    Narrow-minded bigots are perfectly at liberty to be narrow-minded bigots, but if they're so ashamed of being so that they want to keep their names secret, why do they persist in being narrow-minded bigots?

    June 24, 2010 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  11. SFCMike

    If a legislative body votes for a law, their votes are a matter of record.
    If corporations or individuals donate to campaigns, their donations are a matter of public record.

    If you want to sponsor a ballot initiative to create or change a law outside the normal legislative process, that sponsorship, even if it's limited to signing a petition, should also be a matter of public record.

    The only "privacy" in the process is who or what you actually vote for in the ballot box.

    June 24, 2010 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  12. Jim in San Mateo

    Hmmm. The thieves who steal from others don't want their names known? I wonder how the police would feel about that. Criminals would be protected from having their names released?

    Now, people want to steal rights away from gay people and not have their names known. A criminal is still a criminal and a thief is someone who takes something that doesn't belong to them without permission.

    I can hear the KKK cheering from here.

    June 24, 2010 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  13. Djinn

    More of our ACTIVIST supreme court BS. We desperately need a wave of cardiac problems before they sell out all future generations.

    June 24, 2010 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  14. Pragmatic

    If you believe in something, strongly enough to sing a petition, then have the spine to stand up and be counted!

    Don't be like the Senators where one sneaky soul, without the guts to say so, can halt national legislation for months ... or the SC Legislators who still vote in secret – especially when it comes to voting themselves bonus money & health care!

    June 24, 2010 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |