Tuesday, March 1, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in Independence Institute v. FEC that a nonprofit organization's First Amendment challenge to federal electioneering disclosure requirements must go to a three-judge court (and not be dismissed). The ruling keeps alive the nonprofit's challenge to disclosure requirements for its "electioneering communication" under the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act--even if its constitutional arguments seem, well, weak.
Independence Institute, a 501(c)(3), sought to run a radio ad in favor of a federal statute that would reform federal sentencing, and to encourage citizens to express their support for the law to Colorado's Senator Mark Udall. But Udall was running for re-election at the time, so the radio spot would qualify as an electioneering communication under BCRA. That would trigger disclosure requirements, forcing Independence Institute to disclose its donors to the FEC.
Independence Institute complained, arguing that forced disclosure violated the First Amendment, and sought review by a three-judge court. The district judge denied the request, concluding that the plaintiff's claims were foreclosed by McConnell v. FEC and Citizens United, both of which upheld disclosure requirements against a facial challenge and against one particular as-applied challenge.
A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said that Independence Institute's arguments passed the low standard the Court recently set in Shapiro v. McManus--denying a three-judge court only when a claim is "essentially fictitious, wholly insubstantial, obviously frivolous, and obviously without merit." In particular, Independence Institute argued that its as-applied claim against the disclosure requirement was different than the as-applied claim that the Court rejected in Citizens United, because Citizens United was a 501(c)(4) organization (not a (c)(3), like Independence), and that Citizens United therefore had a lesser interest in privacy, and that the government had a greater interest in publicly identifying Citizens United's donors. (Independence also argued that the First Amendment bars compelled disclosure unless the electioneering communication is unambiguously campaign-related (not an issue ad, as here). The court didn't address this.)
That seems pretty weak, but not "essentially fictitious, wholly insubstantial, obviously frivolous, and obviously without merit," according to the court.
Judge Wilkins dissented, arguing that the issue's been settled by the Court.
The ruling sends the case to a three-judge court for further proceedings. While this isn't a ruling on the merits--and seems like a poor test case to challenge disclosure requirements--the ruling nevertheless keeps the case alive.