Federal judge goofs in closing public access

By the Herald editorial staff

A fairly new federal judge with a long history of working for cities and corporations has intruded himself between the people of Washington and their right to know.

Judge Benjamin Settle, late of the law firm of Settle & Johnson in Shelton, a small town west of Olympia, granted a preliminary injunction against releasing to the public the names of people who signed on to Referendum 71, the attempt to roll back the new state law providing "everything but marriage" rights to same-sex couples.

Backers of the referendum said they'd received unpleasant messages from people who opposed putting it on the ballot.

Not only are the louts who use harassment as a political tactic hurting their own cause, but if the Settle's ruling stands, they'll also be indirectly responsible for causing irreparable harm to open government.

It is also true that petitions are often signed by people who may not agree with the proposal under consideration, but simply agree with the very common statement by signature gatherers: "This doesn't mean you're for it, it just means you think we ought to get to vote on it," with the "it" often left deliberately vague.

The merits of Referendum 71 and the legislative act that prompted it are topics for another editorial.

This one is about the effrontery of a federal judge lightly dismissing the will of the people of Washington, expressed over decades, who want their government open and transparent.

There are, of course, exceptions to those open government laws. Municipal real estate negotiations come to mind, as do some personnel matters and open police investigations.

But keeping secret the names of people who signed a petition to the government to change a law?

Come on, judge. Get a grip.

To be a registered voter (a requirement for a signature on a petition be valid) requires giving one's name and address and length of residency. That's a public document.

To gather the signatures, solicitors gather what they can in front of grocery and discount stores -- extremely public places.

To get the signatures validated, the Secretary of State's office compares signatures on the petitions with the signatures on the voter registrations. Again, public (unless the Washington Secretary of State's Office operates under some cloud of secrecy known only to Judge Settle).

To vote, we all used to have to troop to polling places and show that we were properly registered. This in a line of maybe 10 people, maybe 100. Very, very public.

Now no one had a right to know how you voted, just whether you did. Even with all-mail ballots, the names of voters are still a matter of public record.

Newspaper reporters for years checked up on local politicians (and newspaper editors) to see how careful they were about voting. Sometimes the exercise revealed the hypocrisy of those encouraging citizens to participate in the process.

Judge Settle granted the injunction, he said, because it gave time for another dispute over Referendum 71 to go forward.

But that's not all he said:

At "this time the court is not persuaded that full public disclosure of referendum petitions is necessary," the judge said.

In other words, we should be happy to blindly trust the government to always do the right thing with the petitions that citizens submit.

Apparently it escaped the judge's notice that at least some of those signing the petitions don't have much faith in the workings of their government or they wouldn't be trying to overturn a law passed by them.

Attorney General Rob McKenna, with the collaboration of Secretary of State Sam Reed, has filed an appeal to the judge's ruling.

We hope open government gets a better hearing there than it did in Settle's courtroom.