Saturday, March 15, 2008

Transgender Bill Supporters Sue Board of Elections

Yesterday, twelve Montgomery County residents filed suit against the Montgomery County Board of Elections in the county’s circuit court seeking to set aside their finding that the anti-transgender petition should proceed. The plaintiffs include former Progressive Maryland president and former state delegate candidate Elbridge James and current Takoma Park mayor Bruce Williams. They are represented by Jonathan Shurberg, an attorney working with Equality Maryland.

The complaint alleges that Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG), the group that collected the signatures, used “inaccurate, inflammatory and false information” that is “indicative of a pattern of fraud on the part of the individuals collecting the signatures…” For example, one of the plaintiffs claimed that she “was falsely induced into signing the referendum petition that is the subject of this lawsuit by individuals stating that the law in question allowed for unisex bathrooms and for men to be in the women’s bathroom.”

The complaint goes on to question the validity of the signatures themselves. It alleges that many signatures were outright forgeries, were not obtained from registered voters, were not obtained from county residents, did not have any addresses or were duplicates. The complaint lists numerous problems with the circulator affidavits, such as, “The Petition contains numerous Petition sheets reflecting alterations indicative of fraud by the circulator such as circulator and/or signer information that appears to have been covered with “white out…” But the complaint never states how many signatures or circulator affidavits are alleged to be invalid.

Finally, the complaint claims that the Board of Elections ignored the above problems, stating, “Defendant Board of Elections appears to have determined to overlook disqualifying infirmities in the Petition signatures, circulator certifications and other categories set forth above and instead to certify the Petition despite the Petition’s failure to comply with governing legal requirements.” The remedy sought by the plaintiffs is for the Montgomery County Circuit Court to set aside the board’s finding of validity, thereby allowing the transgender anti-discrimination bill to take effect.

It’s difficult to get a sense of the volume of evidence the plaintiffs have to back up their claims. CRG submitted 32,087 signatures. They need 25,001 to be upheld. The Board of Elections never stated how many signatures were found to be valid when they certified the petition. The complaint never stated how many signatures Equality Maryland’s volunteers found to be invalid. So the presiding judge would have a number of options: find that the process is so fraud-ridden that the petition must be set aside (the plaintiffs’ position), find that the Board of Elections acted within its allowable discretion or order the board to re-examine every signature.

But there is a bigger tactical field than merely the legal realm. The transgender bill started as an anti-discrimination bill, pure and simple. Then it was amended to include “any restroom, shower, dressing room, locker room or similar facility,” an amendment that was later removed but never forgotten by its opponents. CRG’s petition drive degenerated into an ugly ground war that produced this video of a County Council staffer confronting petition gatherers. CRG is promising a lawsuit over this incident. So now we have one confirmed lawsuit against a taxpayer-funded agency, another possible lawsuit involving a taxpayer-funded employee, much talk about showers and bathrooms but much less talk about protecting innocent people from discrimination – which after all was the inspiration for the bill. CRG’s fear-mongerers are running wild while the bill’s original, necessary purpose is receding into the background. From a purely tactical perspective, this order of battle is more favorable to CRG than to the bill's supporters.

Back in 1991, the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey federal abortion case caused many people to fear that the Supreme Court might overturn Roe vs. Wade. Maryland’s legislature passed a bill providing for Roe vs. Wade protections in the state’s law in case the Supreme Court threw out Roe. The law’s opponents successfully petitioned the bill to referendum, but the voters upheld it by a 62-38 margin. Since that 1992 vote, anti-choice groups have not come close to banning abortions in Maryland, though they do try to chip away at them.

If CRG does succeed in getting its referendum before the voters, it might be the best thing that ever happened for supporters of the transgender anti-discrimination bill. Voter affirmation will be much more useful for their cause than endless lawsuits (and videos).