The Supreme Court of the United States ruled June 24 on the case of Doe v. Reed, No. 09-559, in which Terre Haute
attorney James Bopp Jr. was the lead attorney on the case that pitted free speech versus public disclosure of ballot petition
At issue in the case was a 2009 Washington state law that granted gay and lesbian couples registered as domestic partners the same rights as married people. Some religious and social conservatives tried to repeal the law through Referendum 71, but 53 percent of the state’s voters opted to keep it. Petitions for that referendum raised the issue and pitted the two sides against each other about whether names of those petition-signers should be publicly disclosed.
Bopp represented the petition-signers, arguing that the names and addresses should be kept secret because signing a ballot petition is a private political act that warrants First Amendment protection. U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle barred the state from releasing the 138,000 names because that disclosure could endanger their rights to anonymous political speech, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision.
In a 67-page opinion, the nation’s top justices ruled 8-1 that the names and addresses of ballot petition signers can be made public, and that a Washington state statute on public record accessibility is constitutional. Justice Clarence Thomas issued the sole dissent, writing that he would have upheld the District judge’s ruling because he believes this type of speech is protected by the First Amendment and disclosure could have a detrimental impact on people’s interaction in the political process.
A majority found that disclosing the identities of ballot measure petition-signers does not generally violate the First Amendment, though it doesn’t “foreclose success” on any lower court arguments if the sponsors want to pursue a state law exemption. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote that the broad challenge to the state law must be rejected. But the opinion allows the political action committee Protect Marriage Washington to ask the Western District of Washington judge for an exemption from publicly reporting the personal information of those who’d signed petitions in support of traditional marriage.
Rehearing on "In the name of free speech" IL March 31-April 13, 2010