Judge keeps names of petition’s signers sealed pending trial

TACOMA — An Arlington group successfully restarted its legal effort Wednesday to prevent the public from knowing who signed petitions for its initiative last year to undo a controversial gay rights law.

Protect Marriage Washington secured a court order barring release of the names until it has a chance to make the case that those signers of Referendum 71 petitions face the threat of harassment if their identities are released.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle blocks Secretary of State Sam Reed from providing the 138,000 names to the individuals and groups seeking to obtain them under the state’s Public Records Act.

Settle also set in motion a process that could lead to a trial on this dispute this fall.

“We’re happy. We’re going to get our day in court,” said Larry Stickney, of Arlington, the group’s spokesman who managed the campaign that gathered the signatures to put Referendum 71 on the ballot.

“We are definitely going to go out and show the harassment we’ve suffered,” he said.

Dave Ammons, Reed’s spokesman, said the secretary was pleased the judge set an expedited schedule for a trial.

“We look forward to presenting the state’s view that there is not and should not be any threat to citizens who sign petitions,” Ammons said.

Referendum 71 asked voters whether they wanted to retain or repeal the 2009 law granting same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Voters wound up keeping the new law.

This is the second round of legal combat spawned by the measure that aims to clarify the line between the Constitution and the state’s public records law.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Protect Marriage Washington’s contention that those who sign initiative and referendum petitions in this country enjoy a constitutional guarantee of anonymity.

The court, in an 8-1 decision, found the First Amendment is not an absolute shield against disclosure and affirmed that the use of Washington’s Public Records Act to obtain names does not infringe on a signer’s rights to free speech.

However, the majority acknowledged disclosure could be blocked in some instances if sponsors of a measure show there is “a reasonable probability” signers will be the target of “threats, harassment or reprisals from either government officials or private parties.”

That’s what Stickney and the group’s lawyers will try to show.

Affidavits will be submitted from people threatened or harassed once it became public they had signed a referendum petition or donated to the campaign, Stickney said. These witnesses also will be deposed by lawyers in the Attorney General’s Office, which is representing Reed.

“We will be able to show harassment. People have contacted our campaign in tears fearing for their jobs if their identities become public,” said Stephen Pidgeon, the group’s attorney.

Asked how many witnesses he may produce, he said with a smile, “It could be as many as 138,000 names.”

State attorneys don’t expect there will be many witnesses as historically there are not many claims of problems from signers of petitions.

“Year in and year out, people have signed petitions without any blowback,” Ammons said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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