Monday, June 28, 2010

Petition Sunshine

In a recent ruling that got lots of ink locally, the US Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the federal Honest Services law, a factor in the initial (but not current) indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Another ruling issued the same day got far less attention, but is no less deserving. In Doe v Reed, the Court rejected arguments that petition signatures should be kept from the public to avoid intimidation of people signing petitions.

The federal case came out of Washington state, where a citizens' group petitioned for a referendum on a gay marriage law. The group, Protect Marriage Washington, claimed that its supporters faced attacks and reprisals if their petitions were made public. The Secretary of State certified that they had enough names, but complied with a court order not to release the petitions to outside groups.

The public has a keen interest in the integrity of elections. Seeing the petitions, and knowing that any interested group can check them, bolsters public confidence in the referendum process. Being told that the Secretary of State says they're good enough and therefore no one else has to see them, by contrast, diminishes that public trust. Remember the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections? Both turned on states where the chief election officer was the elected Secretary of State, who in both instances had endorsed one of the candidates for president. Whether they were right or wrong, their decisions turned the election to the candidate they endorsed, fueling cynicism. To avoid that, the process must be open and transparent. The petitions must be public.

Last week's ruling was a jumble. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts and joined, in one form or another, by seven of his colleagues. Only Justice Thomas dissented. But there were five concurrences alongside the opinion, and where they all agree appears to be a fairly narrow space. The case was remanded, and it remains possible that the court could, at a later date, tolerate hiding the petitions from the public. For now, it's encouraging that the Court recognizes the public's right to access petitions.

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