BOISE - Idaho has much at stake in Washington’s big U.S. Supreme Court case over whether referendum petition signatures should be public or not.
“Our initiative and referendum statute is very similar to Washington’s and Oregon’s,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, at whose request Idaho joined 22 other states in filing “friend of the court” briefs backing Washington’s position - that the signatures remain public.
“I can’t think of something any more public, that should be public, than somebody signing an initiative petition that is basically using the legislative power reserved to the people,” Ysursa said. “It’s part of an open and transparent process, just like (legislators) voting on a piece of legislation would be. That was our basic reason to join in, and the other states that have initiative and referendum seem to agree with us.”
The 23 states, which also include Oregon, Utah, Arizona and Colorado and are being led by Ohio, are among a long list of parties who’ve filed supporting briefs on one side or the other in the case, from the American Conservative Union to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The high court will hear arguments in the case on Wednesday.
The group “Protect Marriage Washington,” which sued to prevent the release of the names of petition-signers on a referendum that sought unsuccessfully to overturn a same-sex domestic partnership law, contends state public records laws that make such information public are unconstitutional, because they’d subject those signers to harassment for exercising their right to free speech.
The states, in their brief, say signing petitions for an initiative or referendum is not political speech, but legislative action. “The people’s exercise of their sovereign referendum power is, by its very nature, a public act,” the brief states.
They also note the significance of state public records laws. “Every state has recognized its compelling interest in open government - both as a check on government power, and as a means of informing the public - by enacting public records acts and open meetings laws,” the brief says.
It also contends that states won’t be able to guard against fraud or protect the integrity of their petition processes if the names of petition-signers are made secret. “Washington’s interest necessitates giving the very citizens who are exercising their sovereign legislative authority through the referendum process an opportunity to verify the integrity of that process,” the brief says.
The rights of initiative and referendum were placed in Idaho’s state constitution in 1912, in the same section that says the state House and Senate can pass laws.
Ysursa, who himself is an attorney, said he views the states’ brief as “pretty solid,” and he’s hoping the state of Washington prevails, as it did in the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Said Ysursa, “I think it’s a step backwards for openness in government if that case is not upheld.”