High Court's Ruling Could Make Ballot Petitions Public

 

The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday ruled against a group from Washington State that had sought to keep petitions for ballot measures out of public scrutiny, but left the door open for a narrower challenge.

The group, Project Marriage Washington, gathered signatures last year to put before voters a new law granting domestic partner benefits equivalent to marriage, without designating these partnerships as marriage. After a contentious campaign, voters approved the measure, known as Referendum 71, last November, keeping the so-called "everything but marriage" law on the books. Before the election, a gay rights advocate requested a copy of Project Marriage Washington's petitions and said he would put them on a searchable Web site, according to The Seattle Times . The group filed a lawsuit, which eventually reached the high court.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the 8 to 1 majority, said disclosure would make fraud less likely, according to The New York Times . "Public disclosure can help cure the inadequacies of the verification and canvassing process," he wrote. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote that a narrower challenge, spelling out the risk of harassment, would be more likely to succeed. "The widespread harassment and intimidation suffered by supporters of California's Proposition 8 provides strong support for an as-applied exemption in the present case," he wrote.

The names of donors to the Referendum 71 campaigns have been public for months and some top organizers in the campaign have claimed they were threatened. But Washington Attorney General Bob McKenna, who argued on behalf of the state in April, said their claims did not meet the standard.

"The issue is whether the average petition signer has a legitimate fear of threats, harassment or reprisals. And there just hasn't been evidence presented to date that that was the case," he said, calling Thursday "a good day for transparency and accountability in elections."

Project Marriage Washington said it would bring a new challenge. James Bopp, Jr., the group's attorney said opponents of the domest benefits law had received death threats, lost their jobs and been the victims of vandalism in California and Washington.

Twenty-two news organizations filed a brief in support of public disclosure of petitions. 

 
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