R-71 petition challenge heads back to court in May

R-71 petition challenge heads back to court in May

(UPDATED AT 12:25 p.m., Nov. 19 to show Eyman has dropped his state lawsuit.)

Protect Marriage Washington, gay-marriage opponents who sponsored a public vote on the state’s new domestic partnership law last November, have been given a May 31 trial date for their effort to ban public release of the 138,000 names of people who signed Referendum 71 petitions.

In the meantime, the names will remain sealed, under a ruling from the bench this week by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Doe v. Reed, ruled 8-1 on June 24 that, as a general matter, releasing petitions doesn’t violate signers’ constitutional rights. But the court also left open the possibility of narrower challenges to release of specific measures such as R-71.

As expected, that challenge is heading back to Settle’s court. He is the judge who originally blocked release of the petition sheets last fall, citing constitutional grounds. He was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, but now the “as-applied” challenge will commence this coming spring.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, represented by Attorney General Rob McKenna, continue to advocate for release of the signatures under terms of the broad voter-approved Public Records Act.  The referendum process is  citizen legislating and Washington voters expect the process to be open and transparent, not secret, Reed said.  The other side, represented by Indiana activist attorney James Bopp Jr., fears that disclosure would lead to harassment or intimidation of signers.

Every state with the initiative process, except for California, treats petitions as releasable public records.

R-71 petitions have not been released publicly, although a number of public records requests are pending.

In September, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks lifted his broad ban on release of initiative and referendum petitions, but R-71 was not included.

Bopp and attorneys for initiative activist Tim Eyman, meanwhile, dropped their broad challenge of the state’s policy of treating petitions as releasable public records.  Eyman said in a statement “We’ll continue to monitor the federal lawsuit and pursue other ways to counter this injustice.”

Voters upheld the “everything but marriage” expansion of domestic partnership benefits last fall, and the law went into effect last December. Benefits to gay couples and senior opposite-sex domestic partners accrue to people on the Secretary of State’s registry. As of today, that’s 8,231 couples.

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