Legal Briefing: Your Name on a Petition Isn't Private

legal briefing
legal briefing

A daily look at legal news and the business of law


Don't Expect Privacy for Your Petition Signing

When you sign a petition, you shouldn't expect your name to be kept private, the Supreme Court seemed to signal at argument Wednesday. Opponents of a Washington State law expanding the rights of domestic partners collected petition signatures to put its repeal on the ballot and then challenged Washington's Open Public Records Act, seeking to keep secret the names of the people who had signed the petition. The John Does seeking secrecy claimed that releasing their names would potentially subject them to harassment from supporters of gay rights.

Only Justice Samuel Alito Jr. seemed very sympathetic to the request, while others, like Justice Antonin Scalia, were outright hostile. Justice Scalia noted that democracy requires a certain amount of courage and that our current secret ballot is not constitutionally required -- in America's first century, votes were not secret. Why then would the Constitution mandate secrecy for petition signatures?

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg pointed out that petition-collecting groups often sell their lists to sympathetic organizations or use them for fundraising, and the lawyer seeking privacy conceded that the Washington initiative's sponsor had used the list. Ginsberg objected to having privacy on one side but not the other, and also noted that people signed petitions for a variety of reasons, including agreeing with the petition, wanting to get rid of the pesky petition-signature gatherer, or believing that a ballot initiative might be appropriate, even if they're opposed to it.

Washington's attorney general, defending his state's Open Public Records Act, noted that similar information had been routinely released under other states' statutes without incident.

Despite the justices' overall skepticism to the request for a blanket First Amendment rule protecting the secrecy of the names, they did seem inclined to acknowledge that on a case-by-case basis, such a protection might apply when sufficient risk of danger from releasing names could be demonstrated.

Connecticut Woman Files First Genetic Discrimination Case

Pamela Fink had been a highly valued employee of MXenergy, receiving merit raises, solid bonuses and glowing reviews. But after telling her bosses that she had a gene associated with breast cancer and then undergoing a preventative double mastectomy, she was fired, allegedly because of her genetic risk. The company categorically denies that Fink's genes played any role in her firing.

Wal-Mart Will Pay $40 Million to Settle Wage Lawsuit

Some 87,000 Wal-Mart (WMT) employees charged that the company owed them back wages for forcing them to work off the clock. A judge has accepted a $40 million settlement for the claims, reports Bloomberg.

However, it's not yet clear how much employees will get because the 38% contingency fee many of the plaintiffs' lawyers are seeking has been challenged. One of the other attorneys argued that the fee should not be more than 25%.

Australia Will Charge Over $10 a Pack of Cigarettes and Remove Branding

Australia is escalating its war on smoking by raising the cigarette tax and forcing tobacco companies to use plain, non-branded packaging for their smokes, reports Bloomberg. (Australian packs have 30 cigarettes to America's 20, so Aussie smokers will actually be paying more than $15 per 30-cigarette pack.)

If the plain-packaging rule does take effect, cigarette makers and ad agencies will have a wonderful opportunity to see how effective their marketing strategies are. Will customers maintain brand loyalty when all the packs look the same?

And in the business of law...

• The American Lawyer's analysis of how the Am Law 100, the top-grossing law firms in the nation, performed in 2009 is in, and it's neither stellar nor dire. Baker & McKenzie out-grossed all other firms; it and Skadden, Arps were the only firms to rake in more than $2 billion. New York firms did better, on average, than the others.

Health-care reform is going to enable a lawyer to get a big raise, reports the ABA Journal. Andrew Griffin and his family had been rejected by 60 insurers because one of his children is epileptic. The only health-insurance policy he could get that would cover his epileptic son was provided by the state of Texas, but to qualify for that program, he had to make $48,000 a year or less. Before taking the salary cut, he and his wife considered divorcing, so that she and his son could qualify for a federal program, but the salary cut seemed the better way to go. As the provisions of the new health-care reform law kick in, the lawyer will be able to both cover his son and regain a salary commensurate with his position and work for his firm.