Politics & Government

Judge seals Referendum 71 petitions - for now

TACOMA - A federal judge ruled Wednesday that signed petitions calling for a state vote on expanded domestic partnerships for gay couples are barred from public release while he hears arguments on whether to block them for good.

The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in June that release of the signatures does not violate constitutional rights, but said the group behind the Washington state initiative can still try to prove the release would put petition-signers in danger.

Referendum 71 asked voters to either keep or reject the “everything but marriage” law that expanded already established domestic partnerships for gay couples in Washington state. It was approved last fall with 53 percent of the vote.

Protect Marriage Washington, which was opposed to the new law, spearheaded the effort to get the referendum on the ballot.

The group turned in nearly 138,000 signatures last July, with 121,780 being accepted and qualifying for the ballot. Two gay rights groups, WhoSigned.Org and KnowThyNeighbor.org, previously said they would post the names online, sparking legal action to keep them private.

Referendum campaign organizer Larry Stickney said he and others in the campaign were subjected to threats and harassment for their involvement in the effort.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle ruled Wednesday to extend a restraining order that bars public release of the signatures while the case moves forward. He said that if the names were disclosed before a hearing on the case, it would essentially make the case moot.

“The release of the names and addresses could not be undone,” he said.

Stickney’s attorney said that the case centered on how the public records act is balanced against First Amendment issues when people want to voice their opinion on a volatile issue.

“If you’re talking about a nonvolatile issue, like adjusting the sales tax, in most cases that’s not going to rise to a constitutional challenge,” said Steven Pidgeon, an attorney for Protect Marriage. “But when you have a situation where people are saying ’I’m not going to sign a petition because if I do, my car is going to get keyed, my windows will get broken,’ it becomes a different issue.”

Deputy Solicitor General Anne Egeler argued against shielding the names, saying that there was no “likelihood of irreparable harm now that the election is over and there is no evidence presented that anything has happened in the intervening time.”

Even if the judge had not issued the temporary restraining order, the names would have remained sealed. Another request to block the release remains active in Thurston County Superior Court under a separate lawsuit.

A date has not been set for hearings in the federal case. Attorneys said one is not expected until later this year.