Should the names of those who signed a petition seeking a vote to overturn Washington’s domestic partner rights be made known to the public? The United States Supreme Court took up this case today. I feel that when one lobbies in any fashion for the government to take an action that then can become public knowledge. The consequences of using clout and money to lobby in private runs counter to the larger openness that our government should strive to maintain. The same holds true for the individual who signs a petition concerning a heated issue.
This is not so much a conservative vs. liberal court case as much as it is one of strict adherence to higher ideals that we should not run from as a democracy. If one can not stand in the light of day to their convictions that they petition the government about, then perhaps there is a problem with the position that they are privately taking. It should be remembered John Hancock used large bold script when signing the Declaration of Independence, so large in fact that “…fat George can read it without his spectacles.” That should be the model of our convictions today. If we can not stand by our views, then they need not be used for darker nefarious reasons that we are ashamed of to be printed in the press, or seen in the public square.
Justice Antonin Scalia, using history, sarcasm and political taunts, laid down a barrage of objections Wednesday to a plea that the Supreme Court create a new constitutional right of anonymity for individuals who sign petitions to get policy measures onto election ballots. When he was finished, the strong impression was that it might be exceedingly hard to gather a five-vote majority to establish such a right, even though the plea got the fervent support of Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and some implied help from Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. The oral argument was in John Doe # 1, et al., v. Reed, et al. (09-559).
Declaring that the rough-and-tumble of democracy is not for the faint-hearted, what Scalia referred to as the “touchy, feely” sensitivity of some political activists, the Justice said “you can’t run a democracy” with political activity behind a First Amendment shroud. “You are asking us to enter into a whole new field,” Scalia told James Bopp Jr., the lawyer for Washington State signers of an anti-gay rights petition. Politics, the Justice went on, “takes a certain amount of civic courage. The First Amendment does not protect you from civic discourse — or even from nasty phone calls.”
The petition-signers represented by Bopp have argued that disclosure of their names and other identifying information they put on petitions will subject them to harassment, and even to violence. The lawyer told the Justices, for example, that one of the chief sponsors of the anti-gay marriage referendum in Washington had his family sleep in the living room to protect them from retaliation. Bopp’s plea clearly resonated with Justice Alito, but his was the only voice on the bench explicitly in support of the claim to anonymity.
But Justice Scalia was, if anything, a more aggressive advocate for that view of the case. “A petition-signer,” he said, “is taking part in the legislative process.” He suggested that there was no court case holding that the First Amendment shields “activity that consists of the process of legislation.” In fact, Scalia said, “for the first century of our existence” even casting a ballot was done in public, and ballots were of different colors so everyone could know how an individual had voted in a given contest.