ANNAPOLIS – An anti-gay rights referendum slated for the November 2002 ballot remains in jeopardy after a court hearing Wednesday.
A court-appointed special master reviewed the referendum signatures and found about 6,000 potentially invalid ones, according to his report released Oct. 5. The master, Walter Childs, conducted a second review as part of the lawsuit heard Wednesday and added 31 to his original estimate of problem signatures.
Childs’ decision jeopardizes the efforts of TakeBackMaryland.org, which collected 47,539 signatures in opposition to the 2001 Maryland Anti- discrimination Act to put the question to voters. If more than 1,411 signatures are voided, the group would fall short of the required number and the law would take effect immediately.
All three parties to the suit challenging the petitions – Free State Justice, which supports the legislation, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and TakeBackMaryland – must file any objections to the special master’s report by Nov. 13, which Judge Eugene Lerner of Anne Arundel County Circuit Court will then review.
“This process will save the court a tremendous amount of time in the findings of the exceptions,” said Michael Berman, a chief litigator with the Attorney General’s Office.
Free State Justice represents Marylanders who filed a lawsuit against the state, which certified the petitions, arguing the techniques TakeBackMaryland used to gather signatures violated regulations.
State attorneys recommended a special master be appointed to review the signatures.
At the court hearing Wednesday, attorneys representing TakeBackMaryland objected to Childs’ appointment, saying the plaintiffs used him to “gather evidence,” rather than review evidence.
The appointment could set a bad precedent and “almost corrupted the process,” said Brian Fahling, TakeBackMaryland counsel from the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy.
After Childs’ original review of petitions, each party was allowed to file objections to his findings. The state did not do so, raising the issue of whether the defendants have similar objectives, which could hurt their case.
“The state seems to be representing the state and county boards of election,” said Matt Sine, co-chairman of TakeBackMaryland and pastor at Allentown Baptist Church in Fort Washington. “We represent the people of Maryland.”
“I can’t see how (TakeBackMaryland members) have benefited,” said Fahling. “Only bad things can come from this.”
“Benefits don’t always go to everyone,” said Charles Butler, attorney for Free State Justice.
Attorneys also debated responsibility for paying the special master.
Although TakeBackMaryland was not an original party to the case, it was ordered to pay 10 percent of the special master’s fees, with the rest split between the state and Free State Justice.
“The cost of the Democratic process ought to be borne by the state,” said Fahling. “That is the core of the Democratic process.” He contended that TakeBackMaryland does not have the financial wherewithal to pay the costs and will appeal.
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