A United States District Court judge ruled today that there is no reason to shield from public view petitions from a 2009 ballot measure on domestic partnerships.
Judge Benjamin H. Settle ruled that plaintiffs seeking to prevent Secretary of State Sam Reed from disclosing Referendum 71 petitions under Washington’s Public Records Act have not demonstrated that signers of R-71 face a reasonable probability that disclosure will subject them to threats, harassment, or reprisals from government officials or private parties. In fact, Settle wrote, “[T]he Court finds that Doe has only supplied evidence that hurts rather than helps its case.”
Judge Settle refers to the witnesses provided by the plaintiffs in Doe v. Reed, who all reported that police efforts to address their alleged harassment were either “sufficient or unnecessary.” Plaintiffs have had two years to substantiate their claims that signers of R-71 would face serious harassment if petitions are disclosed. The judge also pointed out that the names of 857 R-71 campaign contributors have been public for years, and no serious harassment has been reported.
“The people of our state have long asserted their right to access government records, including ballot measure petitions,” said Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. “Barring the threat of serious harm or harassment to persons identified in such records, the state should always err on the side of transparency and accountability. We’re pleased that the court agrees.”
McKenna added that intimidating or harassing anyone participating in the political process is unacceptable, and urges members of the public to contact the police if they are being threatened. In the case of R-71, however, such harassment was not demonstrated to the Court.
On July 28, 2009, Plaintiffs (collectively “Doe”) filed the action to enjoin the disclosure of R-71 petitions. They argued that disclosure of any referendum or initiative petitions is unconstitutional as a general matter. Second, they claimed that disclosure of R-71 petitions would be unconstitutional as specifically applied to R-71 initiative signers. On September 10, 2009, the Court granted preliminary injunctive relief on the first count but declined to rule on the second. The first count was litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with Attorney General McKenna personally arguing on behalf of disclosure. The Court agreed with McKenna that petitions should be disclosed but left open the possibility of relief under the second count (Doe’s “as-applied” challenge to disclosure of the R-71 petitions).
On June 29, 2011, the parties filed motions for summary judgment regarding Doe’s as-applied challenge. The plaintiffs were unable to provide witnesses who demonstrated a serious threat of harassment, even though the majority of R-71 signatures were gathered in public places, such as grocery stores and shopping malls.