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9th Circuit lifts ban on release of R-71 petitions

SEATTLE — Washington’s secretary of state can release the names and addresses of people who signed petitions calling for a public vote on the state’s expanded benefits for domestic partners, a federal appeals court said Thursday.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a previous decision by U.S. District Judge Ben Settle in Tacoma to block release of the petitions.

Settle held that releasing the names could chill the First Amendment rights of petition signers.

Stephen Pidgeon, an attorney for the petition sponsors, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Despite the appeals court ruling, the names weren’t immediately released.

Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna, said her office must now ask a Thurston County judge to lift a temporary restraining order issued Wednesday forbidding the release of the petitions until the 9th Circuit could rule.

“These petitions are not like a secret ballot, but amount to taking part in our legislative process, which is required to be open and accountable,” Secretary of State Sam Reed said.

Referendum 71 asks voters to approve or reject the so-called “everything but marriage” law, which grants registered domestic partners the same legal rights as married heterosexuals.

Conservative Christian groups that sponsored R-71 want to keep the signed petitions out of public view because they fear harassment from gay-rights supporters.

In its brief order, the three-judge appeals panel said Settle used the wrong legal standard in granting the preliminary injunction that barred release of the petitions, and that the injunction therefore must be reversed.

The judges said they would later issue an opinion explaining their reasoning.

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