W.Va. high court orders release of petition signatures

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jefferson County’s clerk must release signatures sought by a newspaper from an Eastern Panhandle ballot petition, a unanimous state Supreme Court ruled last week.

The justices on Sept. 23 concluded that a referendum petition is a public record when filed with a public body. They also held that West Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act covers such records, “even though the writing was not prepared by, on behalf of, or at the request of, the public body.”

The opinion makes both those findings legal precedents for West Virginia courts to follow in future cases.

The petition had put an unsuccessful referendum on the 2009 ballot to replace Jefferson County’s zoning ordinance. Before the vote, The Observer of Shepherdstown had a filed a FOIA request for the petition and signatures. County Clerk Jennifer Maghan refused to release the signatures, arguing that they were not a public record because they had not been written by a public body.

Last week’s decision reverses a 2009 ruling by Circuit Judge David Sanders dismissing the newspaper’s subsequent lawsuit. Embracing Maghan’s argument, Sanders also said that disclosing the signatures would violate the signers’ privacy and chill the ability of citizens to petition government.

Rejecting those findings, Justice Menis Ketchum wrote that disclosing the signatures under FOIA “serves a vital function in protecting the integrity of the electoral process and in promoting transparency and accountability in the ‘conduct of the public’s business.’”

The opinion also cites the June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Doe v. Reed that said people who sign petitions calling for public votes on controversial subjects don’t have an automatic right to hide their names. The justices brought up that ruling during a hearing for The Observer’s appeal earlier this month.

The Sept. 23 decision sends the case back to Sanders, directing him to order Maghan to release the signatures.

The Observer reported yesterday that since the high court’s ruling, Maghan had given the newspaper a certified list of the names of those who signed the petition. The paper also said it was expecting to receive the original petitions soon.

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