A federal judge this afternoon denied a challenge to California's campaign disclosure law by proponents of Proposition 8, who sought to make donors' identities secret, claiming they were harassed.
The preliminary ruling, by U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr., comes almost three years after voters approved California's same-sex marriage ban. In a case that is widely expected to be appealed, the state successfully argued that publicizing the identities of campaign donors is necessary to an informed electorate.
In January 2009, England denied an initial bid by ProtectMarriage.com to keep secret the identities of donors who made contributions in the final days of the campaign.
Joe La Rue, a lawyer for the group, said in oral arguments today that those donors would remain exposed to harassment "so long as these names are perpetually kept on the state's website."
Mollie Lee, a San Francisco deputy city attorney, said La Rue presented no evidence of death threats or physical violence. More minor incidents, she said, are "not out of the ordinary in California politics."
California law requires the disclosure of the identity of anyone who contributes $100 or more to a campaign. ProtectMarriage.com said the $100 limit was too low, and it claimed it qualified for an exception to disclosure laws once granted by the U.S. Supreme Court to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Socialist Workers Party.
England was skeptical throughout the hearing. The Socialist Workers Party involved relatively few people, he said, and belonging to the NAACP in the early 1950s "could cause you to be killed." In contrast, he said, Proposition 8 proponents not only enjoyed the support of millions of people, but prevailed in the election.
The judge read from a batch of declarations in which people claimed yard signs were stolen, that they received harassing phone calls, or, in one case, that people protested outside someone's business. "That's the extent of what happened," he said.
But La Rue was undeterred in the comparison to minority groups, saying, "The fact that this is typical for controversial campaigns doesn't mean it comports with the First Amendment. ... Once upon a time, segregation, Jim Crow, these things were typical, and that didn't make them right."
England's ruling follows a similar decision this week by a U.S. District Court judge in Washington state, who denied a bid to keep secret the names of people who signed a petition for a referendum seeking to repeal a domestic partnership law there.