Friday, May 16, 2014
The Seventh Circuit this week issued a sweeping ruling on Wisconsin's campaign finance requirements and permanently enjoined a good part of the law. The ruling in Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. v. Barland marks the end of the second round of this broadside challenge to Wisconsin's law. The first round ended with a Seventh Circuit ruling overturning the state's $10,000 cap on contributions under the First Amendment.
The ruling this week is long and detailed. That's because Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc., a 501(c)(4) organization, challenged "a dizzying array of statutes and rules" as vague, overbroad, violative of free speech. It's also because Wisconsin law, according to the court, is "labyrinthian and difficult to decipher without a background in this area of the law," and "has not been updated to keep pace with the evolution in Supreme Court doctrine . . . ."
Portions of the ruling were unsurprising. Thus the court ruled that Wisconsin's ban on corporate speech and its cap on corporate fundraising for an unaffliated PAC violated the First Amendment under Citizens United.
Other portions required a little more work:
Disclaimer Requirement. The court held that Wisconsin's regulatory disclaimer requirement for independent political communications, as applied only to 30-second radio ads (because that's all that was challenged), was unconstitutional. Wisconsin law required a certain disclaimer, but regulations went 50 words beyond that disclaimer, adding nothing to it, with no apparent good reason, and cutting into ad time.
Definitions of "political purposes" and "political committee." The court ruled that the statutory definition of "political purposes" and the regulatory definition of "political committee," which trigger certain registration, reporting, and disclosure requirements, were unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, imposing PAC duties on nearly any political communication. The court gave Wisconsin law a narrowing construction, ruling that "[a]s applied to political speakers other than candidates, their campaign committees, and political parties, the definitions are limited to express advocacy and its functional equivalent as those terms were explained in Buckley and Wisconsin Right to Life II."
PAC Registration and Reporting Requirements. The court ruled that the Wisconsin regulation that treats issue advocacy during the preelection period as fully regulable express advocacy if it mentions a candidate is unconstitutional. It also ruled that the regulation that "imposes PAC-like registration, reporting, and other requirements on all organizations that make independent disbursements, is unconstitutional as applied to organizations not engaged in express advocacy as their major purpose."
In short, the court said that the Wisconsin legislature failed to keep up with changes in the doctrine--in particular, the change that Citizens United wrought--and that the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board's attempts to fill in the gaps through regulations simply swept too broadly.
The court's ruling directs the lower court to permanently enjoin the above-mentioned provisions. The ruling is a sharp kick in the pants to the Wisconsin state legislature to update its campaign finance law.