Judge delays ruling on privacy of petition signatures

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SALT LAKE CITY -- When you sign an initiative petition to put something on the ballot, should your name and address be made public or kept private? That's the basic question before a federal court judge.

An attorney for the state of Utah says signing a petition is like an official act, an effort by citizens to legislate, and there's no expectation of privacy.

"The statute says that when the initiative packets, which are circulated, are given to the county clerk, that becomes a public document; and a public document, anyone can get a copy of it," Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts.

But ethics advocates argue that forcing county clerks to release the names will open the door to pressure from petition opponents, including the state Republican Party.

"This is just an initiative petition; let's put something on the ballot so people can vote on it. That's really the only interest people have in saying, ‘Yes, I will sign it,' or, ‘No, I won't sign it.' People don't sign up to be harassed," says David Irvine, an attorney representing Utahns for Ethical Government.

In the meantime, Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court weighed a similar case out of Washington. Both cases will help determine the fate, not just of this ethics initiative, but future petitions.

The judge made no decision Wednesday on the political question, which is charting new legal territory.

"That's always a good part about lawsuits and government, is the civics lesson that people are hopefully learning about how the process works," Roberts says.

The judge asked ethics advocates to give him more information about some petition signers who've signed on to the court complaint but want to remain anonymous. He could rule by May 5.

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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