OLYMPIA — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked Washington state officials from releasing the names of people who signed referendum petitions to bring expanded rights for gay couples up for a public vote in November.
The court’s action maintains a hold placed Monday by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who temporarily blocked a federal appeals court ruling that had ordered the release of the names. Justice John Paul Stevens was the only member of the court who indicated he would have turned down the stay request.
The court said its order would remain in effect while it decides whether to take up a request by Protect Marriage Washington, the group that wants to reverse the ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
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 couples. While most domestic partners are gay and lesbian couples, under state law opposite-gender seniors also can register as domestic partners.
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, some of whom have vowed to post the names of petition signers on the Internet.
The conservative groups lost a fight to keep the identities of their campaign donors secret.
Washington state Secretary of State Sam Reed said that the Supreme Court “is simply preserving the status quo while opponents of disclosure get their full day in court, and we respect that.”
“We continue to support the view of the 9th Circuit and will do our very best to uphold the voters’ desire for transparent and accountable government,” Reed said in a written statement.
Last Thursday, the appeals court reversed a previous decision by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma to block release of the petitions. Settle held that releasing the names could chill the First Amendment rights of petition signers.
In its brief order, the 9th Circuit 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.
Despite the appeals court ruling, the names weren’t immediately released because of a court order that was issued a day earlier by a judge in Thurston County Superior Court.
On Tuesday, Judge Richard Hicks kept that temporary restraining order he issued last week in place, citing the current action at the federal level.
Hicks said that the competing principle of privacy and open government will “have to be reconciled not by a trial court judge in Thurston county, but by a higher court.”
“I think it’s a very important issue and I’m glad it’s drawn the attention that it has,” he said.
James Bopp, Jr., the lead attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, issued a statement Tuesday saying that the Supreme Court “took a large step forward today in protecting the rights of citizens who support a traditional definition of marriage to speak freely.”
“No citizen should ever have their personal property destroyed or receive death threats for exercising their right to engage in the political process,” he said.