Supreme Court justices appeared unwilling Wednesday to shield the names of signers of a Washington state ballot measure that sought to repeal a gay rights law.

Social conservatives want to block the public release of the nearly 138,000 signatures that put Referendum 71 on the state's ballot last fall. The ballot initiative asked voters to accept – or reject – an expansion of an existing domestic partnership law approved by lawmakers that gave gay couples all the rights of marriage. Voters opted 53-to-46 to keep the law dubbed “everything but marriage” by the media.

Led by lawyer James Bopp Jr., opponents argued that releasing the names would put signers at risk of harassment, reprisals and boycotts of their businesses, amounting to an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights.

“No person should suffer harassment for participating in our political system, and the First Amendment protects citizens from intimidation resulting from compelled disclosure of their identity and beliefs and their private associations,” Bopp told the court.

But Bopp failed to find an ally in even the court's most conservative justice, Antonin Scalia.

“Oh, this is such a touchy-feely, so sensitive” point of view, Scalia said as the court erupted in laughter. “You know, you can't run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known.”

“I'm sorry, Justice Scalia, but the campaign manager of this initiative had his family sleep in his living room because of the threats,” Bopp said.

“Well, that's bad,” Scalia responded. “The threats should be moved against vigorously, but just because there can be criminal activity doesn't mean that you have to eliminate a procedure that is otherwise perfectly reasonable.”

In an amicus brief filed with the court, four gay rights groups – GLAD, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force – argued that opponents were feigning victimization.

“Petitioners seek, through their feint of victimization, to take away one of the few defenses that lesbian and gay individuals have to defend against hostile initiatives: the use of public records to stop the fraudulent qualification of such measures in the first place, and to lobby, through personal advocacy, the people who legislate using such measures,” the groups wrote.

“The Court should decline the invitation to scrap these protections based on a poorly-supported and largely fictitious tale that those who seek to deprive lesbian and gay Americans of rights are the ones being victimized.”

Under Washington state law, names of people who sign petitions become public record after the Secretary of State verifies a petition, but Referendum 71 names have remained sealed pending the court's decision. State officials argue that the names should be released because signers are acting in place of lawmakers, who do not approve laws in secret.

“What the anti-gay groups are attempting to do is get a sweeping constitutional rule that will allow them to continue to operate in secret in terms of ballot measures all across the country,” Anne Levinson, chairwoman of Washington Families Standing Together, the gay rights group which campaigned to keep the state's domestic partnership expansion, told the Seattle Times.

While the case – Doe v. Reed – does not affect gay rights legislation directly – it deals with questions of free speech and privacy – it does provide early clues as to how the court might rule on several gay rights cases wending their way through the federal system.

Gay rights advocates worry that the court remains too conservative to rule in their favor in three cases likely to reach the Supreme Court within the next couple of years. All of the cases involve the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Two of the cases challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which blocks married gay couples from accessing federal benefits, while a third questions the constitutionality of California's gay marriage ban, Proposition 8.

The court is expected to rule on Doe v. Reed later this summer.