Couples shivered in the early morning chill, waiting for the doors to the Multnomah County Building to open on Monday morning, February 4. Makeshift clipboards circulated through the crowd, and volunteers passed out pens. One by one, people filled out a form with sections for "Partner A" and "Partner B."
Moments before 8 am, volunteers with Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) prepared the crowd: "Are you ready for your rights?" someone shouted from the head of the line, kicking off a countdown until the doors opened and the couples could officially register as domestic partners in the State of Oregon.
Now, same-sex couples across the state have access to the same rights and responsibilities that their opposite-sex married counterparts do, at least when it comes to state laws like hospital visitation, parental rights, and inheritance.
Those rights weren't available as early as last Friday morning, February 1. Thanks to a federal court challenge to Oregon's signature verification process, anti-gay activists had successfully held up the domestic partnership law for a month, while attorneys for the state, for BRO, and for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) prepared to argue whether a referral petition about the new law had been improperly barred from the November ballot.
For over five hours on Friday, attorneys cross-examined handwriting experts, and grilled State Elections Director John Lindback about the standards used to decide whether or not a petition signature matches the signature on a voter registration card. Attorneys with ADF were trying to show that the state tossed out valid signatures, and ignored signers' attempts to reinstate their signatures.
The lawyers spent the afternoon arguing legal theory: Is signing a petition akin to voting, and if so, should constitutional protections that apply to voting—a fundamental right—also apply to whether the state has to notify someone whose signature is tossed?
Ultimately, Judge Michael Mosman said no, signing a petition isn't a fundamental right. "We don't have signatures actually expressing the will of the voters. We certainly don't have a majority process, as [a petition] calls for an election rather than substitutes for an election," Mosman said while ruling from the bench on Friday afternoon, a move that surprised most people in the courtroom.
Mosman also addressed what he called "the most troubling of all the arguments in the case," one that examined whether "people who vote or sign a petition in one county are far more likely to qualify than people in another county because the evaluators, the people working for the state, don't have any standard by which to make their judgments," Mosman explained.
The closest a state attorney came to explaining the state's "match/no-match" standard for evaluating signatures was an analogy of a restaurant server comparing a credit card receipt signature with one on the back of a Visa card. However, Mosman found that "the state has come forward with sufficient evidence to defeat the request for a permanent injunction." But he qualified that judgment with a "barely so," saying that "there are... many things heard today that should be troubling to the secretary of state about the signature verification process."
Mosman's surprise bench ruling meant that the domestic partnership law, on hold since January 1, took effect immediately. BRO Executive Director Jeana Frazzini was so shocked by the sudden ruling that she admitted she hadn't discussed with her partner the logistics of registering right away. Though the state and counties were prepared just in case—domestic partnership forms appeared on the state's Center for Health Statistics website that afternoon—the ruling came late enough in the day that registrations were pushed to Monday. By Tuesday, over 150 couples had registered in Multnomah County alone.
Meanwhile, ADF attorney Austin Nimocks said that the group would be appealing the ruling. And the anti-gay activists behind the referral effort have said they'd be launching a repeal effort, also aimed at the November ballot.