A court battle over releasing the names of petition signers on a Washington gay marriage-related referendum has moved from the U.S. Supreme Court to a federal district court.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle on Wednesday ordered the state of Washington to keep private the names and addresses of signers of the referendum to repeal the state’s domestic partnership law.
The Supreme Court in June in Doe v. Reed rejected Protect Marriage Washington’s broad constitutional arguments that the identities of petition signers generally are protected by the First Amendment from release under the state public records laws. However, the Court, in an 8-1 ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., suggested the organization could attempt a narrower challenge, that disclosure of the names on this particular petition would violate the First Amendment if they could show evidence of actual threats of violence and harassment .
The order by the district court on Wednesday will allow Protect Marriage Washington to attempt to make that narrower claim.
The organization’s counsel, James Bopp Jr. of Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom in Terre Haute, Ind., said, “Supporters of traditional marriage have received death threats and have had their personal property destroyed after standing up to protect the institution of marriage. I am confident that when the judge considers all of the evidence, copies of the petitions will not be released to the public.”
The district court asked the parties to agree to an accelerated schedule, but no hearings have yet been ordered.
Washington enacted a law in 2009 expanding the rights and responsibilities of state-registered domestic partners. On July 25, 2009, Protect Marriage Washington submitted petitions with more than 138,500 signatures to the Washington secretary of state calling for a referendum by the Washington voters on that law. The ballot measure was considered in the following general election and the law was supported by a majority of those voting on the measure.
After the petitions had been submitted to the state, several supporters of the challenged law sought the names and addresses of the petition signers and one organization indicated it would publish that information on the Internet.
After prevailing in the district court, Protect Marriage Washington lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. That defeat led to the Supreme Court and its ruling on June 24.