The U.S. Supreme Court intervened Tuesday in the state of Washington's ongoing wrangling over a ballot measure intended to curtail the expansion of gay rights. The Court blocked state officials from releasing the names of people who petitioned to put the state's domestic partner law on the November ballot for a public referendum. Now, as the November election creeps closer, activists are anxiously waiting to see whether the Court will hear the case in full, or allow the names to be public.
In May of this year, Washington's legislature voted in favor of an expansion to the state's domestic partner law that came to be called the "everything but marriage" law. Washington has had domestic partnerships since 2007; these grant limited rights—hospital visitation, funeral and organ donation decisions, and inheritance—to registered couples. That original law has been expanded twice, first in 2008, when legislators added more shared property rights and parental guardianship, and again this year, when they extended benefits to partners of public employees and legalized adoption and child support rights. Washington has nearly 6,000 domestic partners legally registered and eligible for these extended benefits.
The expanded law instantly met with push-back, however. An anti-gay group, Protect Marriage Washington, put together a ballot measure that would put "everything but marriage" to the voters on the November ballot. With the shadow of Prop 8 in the recent past, gay-friendly Washingtonians worried that the measure might not pass. In an effort to apply community pressure, activists demanded the names of the more than 100,000 people who signed referendum petitions. The Washington Secretary of State, Sam Reed, was prepared to release the names to the public—until Protect Marriage Washington went to court to request they be sealed, arguing that signatories would be subject to harassment if their names were known. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and said that the names were public information.
On Monday of this week, Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the lower court's ruling and issued a stay, telling Reed to keep the names private while the Court considered whether to hear arguments in the case. The following day, the entire Supreme Court reiterated that stay, pending their decision on hearing the case. Washington Secretary of State Reed attempted to keep the order in perspective, calling it "simply preserving the status quo while opponents of disclosure get their full day in court," though he also vowed to "do our very best to uphold the voters' desire for transparent and accountable government."
For activists, the main concern is timing. Ballot measure R-71 is polling close, with a Survey USA poll earlier this month having it passing (in other words, affirming "everything but marriage") by a 45 to 42 margin, with 13 percent undecided. Voter turnout will be important, as will the last weeks of the campaign. Knowing the demographics of the petitioners could help to target outreach efforts, even if publishing names did nothing in itself to discourage the No-voters. With two weeks to the election and the Supreme Court undecided, it appears that the Yes on R-71 activists may have to carry on without that information.