US Supreme Court Rules on Ballot Petition Case

On Thursday the United States Supreme Court ruled that states have the right to disclose the names of people who sign referendum petitions. This ruling applies to all sorts of petitions, but arises over a dispute involving the efforts of anti-gay activists to over-turn Washington State’s domestic partnership law. In early 2009, Governor Chris Gregoire of Washington signed SB5688, which expanded the legal protections for domestic partners in that state. Anti-gay activists filed petitions to over-turn that law by placing Referendum 71 on the ballot. That effort failed in last November’s election – where more than 53% of Washington voters chose to approve the domestic partnership law. GLAAD was very active with media advocacy related to the Referendum 71 campaign. GLAAD staff was on the ground for months leading up to Election Day, helping develop and implement the campaign’s communications strategy – working on educating voters throughout the state on the importance of domestic partnerships. Several organizations, including, Washington Families Standing Together (the leaders of the campaign to approve the domestic partnership law) sought release of the signatures. The signatures were sought primarily to help ensure accuracy and avoid fraud in the signature counting. Anne Levinson, Chair of Washington Families Standing Together, said, “This is the third loss for these groups in our state over the past year as they tried to repeal legislation ensuring that all families are treated equally under Washington State law. First the State PDC said no when these same groups tried to hide their donors. Then voters approved Referendum 71, retaining the law, by more than 53%. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against the proponents’ attempt to undermine disclosure laws.” The Secretary of State planned to release the signatures, under Washington law. However, the anti-gay activists that led the failed attempt to repeal the domestic partnership law claimed they would be subject to harassment if their names were released – and argued that no petition submitted to the government should be subject to public review. On Thursday, in an 8-1 decision authored by Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, the court rejected the arguments of the anti-gay activists, and determined that states have the legal authority to release the names of people signing petitions, under most circumstances. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. The Supreme Court did not adjudicate the issue of whether the Referendum 71 petition signatories would have to be disclosed. They left it up to the district courts to hear arguments and determine if there was reason to believe that this particular petition should be excluded.