The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in
favor of gay rights advocates seeking to release the names of signers
to a Washington ballot measure that sought to repeal a gay rights
law, the AP reported.
The opinion written by Chief Justice
John Roberts was broadly supported by seven out of the eight
justices. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.
Roberts emphasized that public
disclosure “promotes transparency and accountability in the
election process to an extent other measures cannot.” The ruling
solely deals with whether disclosing the names of ballot petitioners
violates their First Amendment rights. Roberts added that
petitioners could return to the lower courts with their specific
The court agreed to hear the case after
Protect Marriage Washington appealed a 9th Circuit Court
of Appeals decision that ordered the release of nearly 138,000
signatures that put Referendum 71 on last fall's ballot.
Referendum 71 asked voters to accept –
or reject – a domestic partnership law approved by lawmakers that
gives gay couples all the rights of marriage. Voters opted to keep
Led by lawyer James Bopp Jr., opponents
argued in April 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
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
“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.
Gay rights groups announced early in
the campaign their intention to make the names public via the
Internet once released by the state.
The ruling is good news for gay rights
advocates who worry about the conservative leanings of the court as
three cases wend their way to the Supreme Court. 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.