Twice in the past year, the U.S. Supreme Court has vindicated Washington state’s public disclosure laws and the spirit behind them.
Maybe now the point is settled: The best way to keep government honest is to shine a brilliant spotlight on every corner of every location where it functions. That applies not only to elected officials and hired government workers but also to the people themselves when they decide – as Washington’s constitution permits – to shape the law directly.
A week ago, the high court quietly declined to reconsider a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the state’s authority to require disclosure of those who financed a campaign to oppose the “Death with Dignity” initiative in 2008.
An organization called Human Life of Washington went to court, hoping to protect the campaign’s financial contributors from the same openness that is required in other political campaigns. There’s no reliable way to stop vested interests from bankrolling sophisticated campaigns, but citizens can make better decisions when they know who’s writing the checks. That’s what led to the drafting and passage of Initiative 276 three decades ago.
Likewise, a Supreme Court ruling last summer was emphatic that individuals who sign the petitions to put initiatives and referendums on the ballot are not entitled to anonymity any more than the elected legislators who pass bills. The measure involved in that case was Referendum 71, an attempt to derail a freshly enacted law that would expand same-sex couples’ rights. Protect Marriage Washington, the organization that circulated petitions in hopes of overturning the law, fought to keep the names of petition signers secret.
They based their feeble case on a supposition that revealing the identity of those who signed – even though the signatures were given in settings as open and crowded as supermarket entries and mall parking lots – could subject them to retaliation. Without evidence of any real threat, such conjecture didn’t convince the Supreme Court to sanction secrecy.
As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the eight-member majority that affirmed the state law, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Even so, there will frequently be those who resist that act of courage, hoping to escape accountability for motives that are selfish rather than civic.
If the courts remain steadfast, their guise will fail.