SAN FRANCISCO - The sponsors of California's gay marriage ban do not have to turn over internal campaign documents as part of a lawsuit to overturn Proposition 8, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
Reversing the judge presiding over the case, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that forcing backers of the voter-approved ban to reveal their private conversations and internal strategy would discourage like-minded people from working together to advance their political views - a violation of their First Amendment rights.
"The freedom to associate with others for the common advancement of political beliefs and ideas lies at the heart of the First Amendment," Judge Raymond C. Fisher wrote for the panel.
Attorneys for the two same-sex couples who are trying to get Proposition 8 overturned as a violation of their civil rights have been seeking the information in preparation for the trial, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 11. They are trying to prove that bias against gays and lesbians alone motivated the ballot initiative's supporters to put it before voters.
The 9th Circuit decision means that to prove their point, the couples' attorneys will need to rely almost exclusively on published materials from last year's campaign and interviews with the main players behind the ban.
Yusef Robb, a spokesman for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, a Los Angeles-based group spearheading the lawsuit, insisted that lawyers still would have plenty of ammunition to show that the ban unlawfully discriminates against gays.
"We are ready to proceed on January 11 with an overwhelming case against Prop. 8 that is based on a multitude of documents, witness testimony and the U.S. Constitution," Robb said.
Andy Pugno, a lawyer for Protect Marriage, the coalition of religious and social conservative groups that sponsored the measure, said the ruling proved that Proposition 8's sponsors were correct in fighting to protect the identities of prominent backers and the keys to their winning strategy.
"It's a fundamental feature of our system that citizens have a right to participate in campaigns without later being put on trial for their political beliefs," Pugno said.
He said the campaign would furnish the other side with literature and appeals that were sent to voters, "but we've drawn the line with internal discussions and strategizing."
Friday's ruling came in response to a pair of decisions by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker, who overruled the objections of Protect Marriage and ordered the group's attorneys to give opposing lawyers e-mails, strategy memos and other information exchanged by the campaign's leaders.
In a footnote to its opinion, the appeals court left open the possibility that Protect Marriage still could be compelled to produce some of its internal campaign documents if lawyers for the other side craft a narrowly targeted request for information that is unavailable from other sources.