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R-71 petitions: Attorneys press case to high court

by David Ammons | March 25th, 2010

In the run-up to the U.S.  Supreme Court’s April 28 hearing on public release of initiative and referendum petitions, the state is underscoring that the voter-approved Public Records Act requires release.  The public’s demand for transparency and accountability of the government is “compelling and substantial,” attorneys for the Secretary of State said in a brief submitted to the high court on Thursday.

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The thick 60-page brief is a reply to the efforts of Protect Marriage Washington (foes of the state’s new “everything but marriage” domestic partnership law) to block release of the petitions gathered last summer to force a statewide vote on broader rights for gay and senior partners.

Secretary of State Sam Reed and the state Elections Division, backed by the attorney general’s office, take the position that the Public Records Act adopted by the voters in 1972 requires the release of all public documents that are not specifically exempt. A number of groups and individuals have requested the names and addresses of the 138,000 voters

who signed the petitions.  Foes of the new law said disclosure would chill voters’ right to participate anonymously in the political process, and could lead to harassment.

The closely watched disclosure case has implications for all initiative and referendum petitions, including those in other states. Washington has never released the R-71 petitions due to a preliminary injunction that remains in place for that and other initiative petitions, including many sponsored by initiative activist Tim Eyman.

Protect Marriage Washington won a disclosure ban in U.S. District Court in Tacoma last September, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, siding with the state that disclosure was mandated under state law and does not violate the federal Constitution. Protect Marriage Washington, in a case called Doe v. Reed, now has persuaded the high court to hear its appeal.

In a brief written by Deputy Solicitor William Collins, the state defends the Public Records Act and the state’s release policy. The act of signing a petition is described as a public legislative action by citizens, essentially like seconding a motion on a bill.  No constitutional rights are abridged, and indeed, voters’ need for pertinent election information is enhanced, the brief says.  They square the state’s policy with the disclosure portion of the recently released Citizens United case in the Supreme Court.  And state attorneys say the issue of potential harassment of petition signers is not before the court, since it was not the subject of the district and appeals court rulings.

Voters approved R-71 by a vote of 53-47 in November.  As of today, there are 7,241 domestic partner registrations with the Secretary of State’s Corporations and Charities Division.

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