by David Ammons | September 3rd, 2009
Settle says supporters of the state’s new “everything but marriage” law may see the names and addresses of people who signed the petitions, for possible use in a Thurston County Superior Court case that attempts to block the public vote via R-71. The group may not make the information public, he said.
The closely watched public records case, heard Thursday afternoon in Settle’s Tacoma courtroom, arises from R-71 sponsors’ bid to keep the petitions confidential. The Secretary of State, custodian of the petitions after completing a full check of all 137,881 names this week, has a longstanding policy of treating initiative and referendum petitions as releasable public records.
The Secretary had intended to release copies to organizations and individuals who requested them, but Settle blocked that on July 29 with his emergency order sought by the sponsors, Protect Marriage Washington. The group feared retaliation or harassment if the names and addresses were posted on the Internet by WhoSigned.org or other groups. The state told Settle that citizens have a vital interest in keeping election-related documents public and that warnings of foul play or misuse of the signature information were speculative.
Thursday’s hearing included two hours’ worth of arguments. Sponsors talked about First Amendment rights to participate without retaliation. The state and the Coalition for Open Government resisted the ban, saying public disclosure laws adopted by the voters requires release of public records without asking the requester what usage will be made of the information. The Legislature has never exempted petitions from disclosure, they noted.
Attorneys for Washington Families Standing Together, the coalition that is battling foes of the newly passed expansion of domestic-partnership rights, requested and received permission to have a copy of the petitions, agreeing not to make them public. The group, rebuffed in King County Superior Court on Wednesday, turned to Thurston County Superior Court on Thursday, hoping to block the referendum from the ballot. The challengers fault the Elections Division’s signature check.
Judge Settle extended his temporary ban, saying he would take the arguments under advisement and issue a written decision or make a further court order. He mentioned Sept. 11 as a possible date to expect a ruling.