Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Campaign finance transfers that Justice Alito called a "wild hypothetical" at oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC are the reality in today's presidential race, writes Paul Blumenthal at HuffPo. That means that a candidate's joint fundraising committee (which raises money for candidates and state and national parties) can bring in over a million dollars per donor in the 2016 election cycle. This is the maximum amount a donor can contribute to the candidate and the parties within base contribution limits. State parties can redistribute their take to benefit the candidate, circumventing the base limits.
Justice Alito called this a "wild hypothetical" at oral arguments in McCutcheon, at least as regards congressional elections. But Blumenthal says it's reality, and cites the Clinton campaign as an example. He describes it this way:
Donors are limited by how much they can give to campaign committees, national party committees and state party committees. A single donor can give $5,400 to a candidate's campaign to cover both a primary and general election, $33,400 annually to a national party committee's general fund and $10,000 annually to each state party. These limits are known as "base" contribution limits. (Additionally, donors can give $100,200 annually to each of the national party committee's convention, building and legal funds . . . .)
Since the Hillary Victory Fund links the Clinton campaign, the DNC and 33 state parties, the total amount a donor could give is $669,400 per year. Technically, a maximum contribution to the fund would include $330,000 to be split amount the 33 state parties. Since party committees are allowed to make unlimited transfers between each other, that money can easily be sent to the state parties most advantageous to the candidate's raising the money--in a swing state, for example. Or, as is happening with the Hillary Victory Fund, that money can be sent to the DNC, which redistributes it as they see fit.
Why does this matter? Well, the Court in McCutcheon said that aggregate contribution limits (designed to complement base limits and avoid corruption by effectively restricting the amount of money candidates could transfer between each other) violated the First Amendment. The Court said this in part because the FEC's rules on earmarking contributions and limits on transfers between candidates effectively prevented these kinds of shenanigans. In other words, the Court said that aggregate limits weren't necessary to avoid corruption, because other features of the regulatory scheme prevented donors from circumventing base limits and corrupting politicians.
But those features don't limit state political party transfers. So a joint fundraising committee can send donations to state parties, which can then strategically funnel those donations to other state parties or to the national party, directly benefiting the candidate. That's exactly what SG Verrilli raised--and what Justice Alito dismissed as a "wild hypothetical" in the context of congressional elections--at oral argument in McCutcheon. It's also what seems to be happening in the 2016 presidential election.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Judge Christopher Cooper (D.D.C.) ruled last week that a constitutional challenge to the federal restrictions on soft money by state and local political party committees will be heard by a three-judge district court. The ruling puts the case on the fast-track to the Supreme Court, whose plurality ruling last year in McCutcheon puts the federal soft-money restrictions on extremely shaky ground. The net result: this case, Republican Party of Louisiana v. FEC, will likely go to the Supreme Court; the Court will almost surely strike the soft-money restrictions; and the ruling will open yet another spigot for vast amounts of money to flow in politics.
The case involves BCRA's limits on soft money by state and local political parties. "Soft money" is a contribution to a political party for state and local elections and for "issue advertising," but not for influencing federal elections. (Money for federal elections is subject to other restrictions.) The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act flatly prohibits national political parties from raising or spending soft money. But as to state and local party committees, BCRA permits them to use soft money for state and local elections and issue ads, but not for federal election activities. As a result, state and local political party committees use (1) a federal fund, consisting of contributions at and below federal (FECA) limits, for federal elections, and (2) nonfederal funds, consisting of soft-money contributions, for state and local elections and issue ads. (There is a third category, too: Levin funds. Levin funds are a type of nonfederal fund that can be used for some federal election activity. They don't appear to be a game-changer in this case, though.)
The plaintiffs in this case, state and local committees of the Republican Party in Louisiana, challenged BCRA's limits on soft-money. In particular, they challenged (1) BCRA's prohibition on the use of soft-money for federal election activity, (2) BCRA's requirement that state and local committees pay direct costs of fundraising activity for funds used for federal election activity, and (3) BCRA's monthly reporting requirement disbursements and receipts for federal election activity. (BCRA defines "federal election activity" as voter registration, voter identification and GOTV, in addition to campaign communications that refer to a clearly identified candidate for federal office.) The plaintiffs claim these restrictions violate the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs moved to convene a three-judge court to hear their claims. BCRA authorizes such a court to hear constitutional challenges to BCRA, and allows the loser to take the case directly to the Supreme Court. (Constitutional challenges to FECA, on the other hand, go first to an en banc court of appeals. The plaintiffs wanted to by-pass this step and fast-track the case to the Supreme Court, so, learning a lesson from earlier cases, they challenged BCRA's restrictions, not FECA's limits on contributions. Still, a successful challenge would effectively erase FECA's contribution limits.) In this way, the plaintiffs will get the case to the Supreme Court, and quickly.
And that matters, because the Supreme Court has signaled that it's ready to strike at least some soft-money restrictions. In McCutcheon, a plurality defined "corruption"--the only justification for contribution limits that will withstand constitutional scrutiny--quite narrowly, as "quid pro quo corruption or its appearance," or vote-buying. By that definition, the Court is almost sure to strike soft-money restrictions for things like voter registration, GOTV, and issue ads, and maybe others. (How do these things lead directly to quid pro quo corruption?) Even as the Court said in McCutcheon that it wasn't disturbing prior cases upholding restrictions on soft money, its cramped definition of corruption almost surely rules some or all of those restrictions out.
At least the uncertainty created by the Court's definition in McCutcheon caused Judge Cooper to conclude that the plaintiffs' constitutional challenge was "substantial"--a trigger for the three-judge court.
(One potentially complicating factor: The Court is now considering when a complaint is "substantial" so that it triggers a three-judge court, in Shapiro v. McManus. Judge Cooper wrote that if the Court's ruling in Shapiro alters his analysis of "substantial," the three-judge court could dissolve itself. That wouldn't end the case (necessarily), but it would require the plaintiffs to appeal through the D.C. Circuit.)
Judge Cooper's ruling did not address the merits (except to say that the challenge was "substantial"). Still, the ruling puts the case on the fast-track to the Supreme Court (subject to any potential speedbumps from Shapiro), where some or all of the soft-money restrictions on state and local political party committees will likely meet their doom.
Monday, October 12, 2015
The NYT reported yesterday that just 158 elite families and the companies they control have provided nearly half the money in the early part of the 2016 presidential election.
The are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters. Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns. And in an economy that has minted billionaires in a dizzying array of industries, most made their fortunes in just two: finance and energy. . . .
Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much money early in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision five years ago.
At the same time, Ciara Torres-Spelliscy writes at the Brennan Center that DOJ is stepping up to enforce campaign finance crimes:
The Federal Election Commission is still living up to its unfortunate nickname as the Little Agency That Wouldn't. This means that in the pricey and already in full swing 2016 presidential election, the FEC is likely to be sitting on its hands instead of enforcing the law. But would be scofflaws do have something to worry about: the Justice Department is on the beat.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Judge Sidney Stein (SDNY) this week denied Citizens United's motion to preliminarily enjoin the New York Attorney General from enforcing his policy of requiring registered charities to disclose the names, addresses, and total contributions of their major donors.
The ruling, which follows a similar Ninth Circuit ruling this past spring, is a blow to the organization's efforts to keep their donors secret through the 501(c) form. But it does not mean that Citizen United's donors will be available to all of us: both the IRS and the state AG refuse to disclose the names of donors.
The case tests the AG's rule that charities registered in the state provide to the state AG their Schedule B to IRS Form 990. Schedule B includes names of persons who donate over $5,000 to a charity. Citizens United, a 501(c) organization, challenged the rule, arguing that it violated free speech, and due process, among other claims, and filed for a preliminary injunction.
Judge Stein rejected the motion, saying that Citizens United was unlikely to win on the merits. As to the free speech claim, Judge Stein wrote that the AG's rule bears a substantial relation to the sufficiently important government interest in enforcing charitable solicitation laws and protecting state residents from illegitimate charities, and that the strength of the state's interest justified the minimal burden on the organization. Judge Stein also concluded that the rule was not an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, because the rule "sets forth 'narrow, objective, and definite standards' that cabin the Attorney General's exercise of discretion.'" Finally, Judge Stein rejected Citizens United's claim that the rule came without warning and thus violated due process, because in fact the rule did nothing new. (Judge Stein also rejected the non-constitutional claims.)
But while Judge Stein's ruling rejected Citizens United's motion to stop the state AG from enforcing the rule for now, nothing in the ruling compels the public release of the organization's major donors. Indeed, the ruling hinges on the fact that New York law and IRS regs both bar the public release of Schedule B. The ruling only allows the state AG to collect this information for the purpose of ferreting out charitable fraud and related crimes.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled this week that a special prosecutor's reading of Wisconsin's campaign finance rules in the investigation into illegal coordination between "independent" organizations and Governor Scott Walker's campaign violated the First Amendment. The ruling ends the investigation into the alleged coordination. It also opens the spigot for coordinated expenditures between outside organizations and campaigns on all but express advocacy for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.
The special prosecutor alleged that that the Walker campaign coordinated with outside organizations on issue advocacy in the recall elections related to Wisconsin Act 10, the bill that sharply curtailed public sector union rights in Wisconsin. In particular, the prosecutor alleged that the coordination was so extensive that the outside organizations became subcommittees of Walker's campaign under Wisconsin law, and that the outside organizations' coordinated issue advocacy amounted to a contribution to the Walker campaign--all in violation of Wisconsin law.
But all this turned on whether the advocacy was for "political purposes." Wisconsin law defines "political purposes" as an act
done for the purpose of influencing the election or nomination for election of any individual to state or local office, for the purpose of influencing the recall from or retention in office of an individual holding a state or local office, for the purpose of payment of expenses incurred as a result of a recount at an election, or for the purpose of influencing a particular vote at a referendum. . . .
(a) Acts which are done for "political purposes" include but are not limited to:
1. The making of a communication which expressly advocates the election, defeat, recall or retention of a clearly identified candidate or a particular vote at a referendum.
In short, the special prosecutor claimed that the coordination was for "political purposes," and therefore illegal.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the definition of "political purposes" (and, in particular, the phrase "influencing [an] election") was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, in that it potentially banned coordination on issue advocacy (and not just express advocacy for the election or defeat of a candidate). "The lack of clarity in [the definition], which the special prosecutor relies on, leads us to the unsettling conclusion that it is left to the government bureaucrats and/or individual prosecutors to determine how much coordination between campaign committees and independent groups is "too much" coordination." The court gave the definition a narrowing construction that limited the definition of "political purposes" to include only express advocacy for the election or defeat of a candidate (and not issue advocacy).
The opinion drew a sharp dissent, which argued that the ruling limited the state's campaign finance regulations beyond what the Supreme Court required and, in doing so, opened up a free-for-all on spending and coordination between "independent" groups and campaigns on issue advocacy.
According to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, no opinion of the United States Supreme Court or a federal court of appeals has established that the First Amendment forbids regulation of, or inquiry into, coordination between a candidate's campaign committee and issue advocacy groups. In repeatedly and single-mindedly declaring a rule that federal case law has declined to adopt, the majority opinion betrays its results-oriented, agenda-driven approach.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
The full D.C. Circuit today upheld the federal ban on government contractor political contributions to candidates and parties. The ruling is a significant victory for campaign finance regulation, and rebuffs a direct challenge to the core of the Court's First Amendment rule on political contributions. At the same time, the case also sets up a challenge to that core for potential Supreme Court review. (We posted previously on the case here.)
The case, Wagner v. FEC, involves a narrow issue: whether the federal ban on contributions to a candidate or a political party by an individual federal contractor violates the First Amendment. The en banc D.C. Circuit unanimously said no. The court applied the familiar "lesser but still 'rigorous standard of review'" that governs restrictions on contributions, and held that the government's interests in (1) avoiding corruption and the appearance of corruption and (2) protection against interference with merit-based public administration supported the ban. The court also ruled that the ban was sufficiently well tailored, and neither unconstitutionally over-inclusive nor under-inclusive, with respect to the two government interests.
The court's lengthy opinion detailed the history of pay-to-play, government responses to the problem of contractor corruption, and current problems with corruption. The self-consciously thorough ruling appears written to insulate it as much as possible from reversal at the Supreme Court and thus underscores the importance of the case.
The plaintiffs framed the case narrowly to directly take on the current lower-level test for political contributions (as opposed to independent political expenditures), and set up a test case to overturn that portion of Buckley v. Valeo that says that government must justify restrictions on contributions at only a lower level of scrutiny under the First Amendment. While today's ruling rebuffed that effort, this is almost surely just a bump in the road for the plaintiffs on the way to the Supreme Court--and their effort to get the Court itself to disavow the lower level of scrutiny (and apply strict scrutiny to contractor contributions), or at least rule that the government's ban on contractor contributions is too sloppy to withstand a lower level of review. Either way, if the Court bites, this could represent a serious challenge to government regulation of political contributions.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
The D.C. Circuit ruled last week in Public Citizen v. FEC that Crossroads GPS, a conservative 501(c)(4) organization, has standing to intervene as a defendant in the on-going litigation involving the FEC's decision not to pursue Public Citizen's complaint against Crossroads GPS.
The case grows out of Public Citizen's complaint to the FEC that Crossroads GPS violated federal election law by failing to register as a political committee, despite "raising and spending significant amounts of money to influence the 2010 congressional elections." The FEC Office of General Counsel recommended that the FEC "find reason to believe" that Crossroads GPS violated FECA, but the FEC divided 3-3 on moving forward. Because the FEC needs four votes to move forward, it dismissed the complaint.
Public Citizen then sued the FEC in federal district court--the complaint is here--and Crossroads GPS moved to intervene as defendant. The district court denied the motion, ruling that Crossraods GPS didn't have standing, but the D.C. Circuit reversed.
The court said that Crossroads GPS has standing on the theory that an adverse court decision would mean that Crossroads GPS would again be subject to enforcement proceedings at the FEC:
In short, the favorable FEC ruling provides Crossroads--as most favorable agency actions would--with a significant benefit, similar to a favorable civil judgment, and precludes exposure to civil liability. Were Crossroads to lose that beneficial ruling, it would return to the position of a respondent subject to enforcement proceedings before a federal agency. Crossroads understandably claims this loss would amount to concrete injury.
The court said that "even where the possibility of prevailing on the merits after remand is speculative, a party seeking to uphold a favorable ruling can still suffer a concrete injury in fact."
The court rejected the argument that the FEC would adequately represent Crossroad's interests, because the FEC's General Counsel recommended moving forward in the first place.
The ruling doesn't say anything on the merits of Public Citizen's claims against the FEC. It only adds a new dimension to the case.
Friday, May 1, 2015
The Ninth Circuit's opinion in Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris rejected a First Amendment challenge to a disclosure of major donors requirement.
The nonprofit Center for Competitive Politics (CCP)- - - an organization to promote the First Amendment and "campaign freedom"- - - sought to enjoin the California Attorney General from requiring it to disclose the names and contributions of the Center’s “significant donors” on Internal Revenue Form 990 Schedule B, which the Center must file with the state in order to maintain its registered status with the state’s Registry of Charitable Trusts. The unanimous panel affirmed the district judge's denial of a preliminary injunction.
The court rejected as a "novel theory" CCP's argument that the disclosure requirement alone is so injurious that it must meet strict scrutiny.
CCP is correct that the chilling risk inherent in compelled disclosure triggers exacting scrutiny—“the strict test established by NAACP v. Alabama,” —and that, presented with a challenge to a disclosure requirement, we must examine and balance the plaintiff’s First Amendment injury against the government’s interest. However, CCP is incorrect when it argues that the compelled disclosure itself constitutes such an injury, and when it suggests that we must weigh that injury when applying exacting scrutiny. Instead, the Supreme Court has made it clear that we must balance the “seriousness of the actual burden” on a plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. Here, CCP has not shown any “actual burden” on its freedom of association.
[citations omitted]. The court largely relies on the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Doe v. Reed, (John Doe I) in which the Court upheld the constitutional of Washington's disclosure of petition signatures. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit panel noted that
unlike in John Doe No. 1 or in other cases requiring the disclosure of the names of petition signatories, in this case, the disclosure would not be public. The Attorney General keeps Form 990 Schedule B confidential. Although it is certainly true that non-public disclosures can still chill protected activity where a plaintiff fears the reprisals of a government entity, CCP has not alleged any such fear here. CCP instead argues that the Attorney General’s systems for preserving confidentiality are not secure, and that its significant donors’ names might be inadvertently accessed or released. Such arguments are speculative, and do not constitute evidence that would support CCP’s claim that disclosing its donors to the Attorney General for her confidential use would chill its donors’ participation.
However, the Ninth Circuit left open the possibility that CCP could show "a reasonable probability that the compelled disclosure of [its] contributors’ names will subject them to threats, harassment, or reprisals from either Government officials or private parties" that would warrant relief on an as-applied challenge, just as the Court did in Doe v. Reed. Recall that on remand in Doe v. Reed the Ninth Circuit found no such probability. Given the confidential nature of the 990 Form here, CCP would most likely have an even more difficult time showing such a probability.
The Ninth Circuit also rejected the preemption claim. Essentially although the Form is required by the federal IRS, federal law does not bar state attorneys from requesting the information in the form.
UPDATE: On May 15, 2015, the Center for Competitive Politics filed an Emergency Application for Injunction Pending Certiorari in the United States Supreme Court; more here.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
In its 5-4 opinion in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, the Court concluded that Florida's Code of Judicial Conduct 7C(1) prohibiting the personal solicitation of campaign funds by judicial candidates does not violate the First Amendment.
From the oral arguments, it did seem as if the opinion would be closely divided, but it was less predictable that Chief Justice Roberts would be writing for the majority upholding Florida's Canon7C(1). In the majority opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan in full, and by Ginsburg except as to part II, Roberts began:
Our Founders vested authority to appoint federal judges in the President, with the advice and consent of the Sen- ate, and entrusted those judges to hold their offices during good behavior. The Constitution permits States to make a different choice, and most of them have done so. In 39 States, voters elect trial or appellate judges at the polls. In an effort to preserve public confidence in the integrity of their judiciaries, many of those States prohibit judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting funds for their campaigns. We must decide whether the First Amendment permits such restrictions on speech.
We hold that it does. Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot. And a State’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office. A State may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor—and without having personally asked anyone for money. We affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.
However, writing only for a plurality, Chief Justice Roberts, relying on Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (2002), held that a "State may restrict the speech of a judicial candidate only if the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest." The plurality rejected the Florida Bar's argument, supported by several amici, that the Canon should be subject to the more permissive standard of Buckley v. Valeo (1976) requiring that the law be “closely drawn” to match a “sufficiently important interest.” It concluded that the “closely drawn” standard is a "poor fit" for this case which is a claimed violation of a right to free speech rather than a claimed violation of “freedom of political association.”
Justice Ginsburg, concurring, reiterated her dissent in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White regarding the standard of review, and emphasized that the Court's "recent campaign-finance decisions, trained on political actors, should not hold sway for judicial elections," specifically discussing Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheon (2014). Justice Breyer, who joined the Chief Justice's opinion in full, nevertheless wrote briefly regarding the standard of review, reiterating his previous statements that he views "this Court’s doctrine referring to tiers of scrutiny as guidelines informing our approach to the case at hand, not tests to be mechanically applied."
Despite the highest scrutiny, however, Chief Justice Roberts's opinion for the Court declared that
Canon 7C(1) advances the State’s compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary, and it does so through means narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessarily abridging speech. This is therefore one of the rare cases in which a speech restriction withstands strict scrutiny.
The Court found that “protecting the integrity of the judiciary” and “maintaining the public’s confidence in an impartial judiciary” were both compelling governmental interests. (The Court did not discuss a specific interest of lawyers or their clients in judicial integrity). As to the narrow tailoring, the Court rejected the "underinclusive" argument - - - essentially that judicial candidates could indirectly solicit campaign funds - - - by noting that while underinclusivity may raise a "red flag," there is no "freestanding 'underinclusiveness limitation.'” Here, the Court concluded that
personal solicitation by judicial candidates implicates a different problem than solicitation by campaign committees. However similar the two solicitations may be in substance, a State may conclude that they present markedly different appearances to the public. Florida’s choice to allow solicitation by campaign committees does not undermine its decision to ban solicitation by judges.
There are three dissenting opinions by the Justices: Scalia, joined by Thomas; Kennedy, and Alito. As the author of Caperton v. Massey, on which the Court partially relies for its compelling governmental interest in judicial integrity, Kennedy's opinion is perhaps most noteworthy. (And recall that Chief Justice Roberts dissented in Caperton). Caperton, based in due process rather than free speech, is uncited in Kennedy's concurring opinion, which focuses on the First Amendment:
This separate dissent is written to underscore the irony in the Court’s having concluded that the very First Amendment protections judges must enforce should be lessened when a judicial candidate’s own speech is at issue. It is written to underscore, too, the irony in the Court’s having weakened the rigors of the First Amendment in a case concerning elections, a paradigmatic forum for speech and a process intended to protect freedom in so many other manifestations.
At the crux of Kennedy's dissent, as the other dissents, is the similarity of judicial elections to political elections. The distinction - - - or lack thereof - - - between judicial and other elections is the linchpin on which the differing views of the case pivot. Chief Justice Roberts ends the Court's opinion with an originalist reflection on that distinction:
The desirability of judicial elections is a question that has sparked disagreement for more than 200 years. Hamilton believed that appointing judges to positions with life tenure constituted “the best expedient which can be devised in any government to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.” The Federalist No. 78, at 465. Jefferson thought that making judges “dependent on none but themselves” ran counter to the principle of “a government founded on the public will.” 12 The Works of Thomas Jefferson 5 (P. Ford ed. 1905). The federal courts reflect the view of Hamilton; most States have sided with Jefferson. Both methods have given our Nation jurists of wisdom and rectitude who have devoted themselves to maintaining “the public’s respect . . . and a reserve of public goodwill, without becoming subservient to public opinion.” Rehnquist, Judicial Independence, 38 U. Rich. L. Rev. 579, 596 (2004).
It is not our place to resolve this enduring debate. Our limited task is to apply the Constitution to the question presented in this case. Judicial candidates have a First Amendment right to speak in support of their campaigns. States have a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in their judiciaries. When the State adopts a narrowly tailored restriction like the one at issue here, those principles do not conflict. A State’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
In its relatively brief opinion in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, the Sixth Circuit seemingly brought an end to the extensive litigation that arose from Stephen Dreihaus's 2010 campaign during which the Susan B. Anthony list, an anti-abortion organization wanted to put up a billboard criticizing Driehaus's vote in favor of "Obamacare," reading "Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion." But the billboard never went up because the advertising company that owned the billboard space refused to put up the advertisement after Driehaus's counsel threatened legal action against it. Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission against SBA List claiming that the advertisement violated two sections of Ohio's false-statement in elections statute. SBA List then sued, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, based on a First Amendment challenge to the statute. Recall that the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Sixth Circuit's finding that federal courts had no Article III power to hear the case.
The First Amendment issues, including Dreihaus' counterclaim for defamation, were thus remanded. The federal district judge found the Ohio election provision violated the First Amendment. In considering the defamation claim, which the judge also foreclosed on the basis of the First Amendment, the Sixth Circuit found that although the district judge's "categorical proclamation" that “[A]s a matter of law, associating a political candidate with a mainstream political position, even if false, cannot constitute defamation" was "a misstatement of First Amendment defamation law." However, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district judge's grant of summary judgment on the basis that Driehaus could not satisfy the elements of the state law defamation tort. Specifically, Driehaus could not prove that the statements by SBA were false: "it is enough that the statements had some truth, were substantially true, or were subject to differing interpretations" and Driehaus could not show any basis for a finding that the statements were made with actual malice.
Thus after extended litigation it now seems that there remain few, if any, bars to "falsehoods" in campaigns.
Monday, January 26, 2015
The Brennan Center's Daniel Weiner recently released Citizens United Five Years Later, the Center's latest in an outstanding series of reports on Citizens United, campaign spending, and the 2014 elections.
Weiner writes that the case's biggest impact hasn't been increased corporate spending (although corporate spending has increased). Instead, Citizens United and other cases have led to a huge increase in spending by super-wealthy mega-donors:
Perhaps most important, the singular focus on the decision's empowerment of for-profit corporations to spend in (and perhaps dominate) our elections may be misplaced. Although their influence has increased, for-profit corporations have not been the most visible beneficiaries of the Court's jurisprudence. Instead--thanks to super-PACs and a variety of other entities that can raise unlimited funds after Citizens United--the biggest money (that can be traced) has come from an elite club of wealthy mega-donors. These individuals--fewer than 200 people and their spouses--has bankrolled nearly 60 percent of all super-PAC spending since 2010.
And while spending by this wealthy club has exploded, we have seen neither the increased diversity of voices that the Citizens United majority imagined, nor a massive upsurge in total election spending. In fact, for the first time in decades, the total number of reported donors has begun to fall, as has the total contributed by small donors (giving $200 or less). In 2014, the top 100 donors to super-PACs spent almost as much as all 4.75 million small donors combined.
A sobering picture.
Weiner's "can be traced" parenthetical gets some attention in the report, too, where Weiner discusses dark money, "independent" groups, and reporting requirements (or the lack of reporting requirements)--all features of a post-Citizens United world.
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar involving a First Amendment challenge to a state rule of judicial conduct prohibiting the personal solicitation of campaign contributions in a judicial election.
Recall that the Florida Supreme Court held that Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 7C(1) (substantially similar to Canons 4.1(A)(8) and 4.4 of the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct), satisfied strict scrutiny, finding that there were two compelling governmental interests (preserving the integrity of the judiciary and maintaining the public's confidence in an impartial judiciary) and that the provision was narrowly tailored to serve these interests (the prohibition of direct fundraising nevertheless allows for the establishment of "campaign committees" to raise funds). The Florida Supreme Court's opinion also pointedly noted that federal "judges have lifetime appointments and thus do not have to engage in fundraising" were divided on the constitutionality of the canon, while state judges were not.
In the arguments before the life-tenured Justices today, the problem of line-drawing was pronounced. The fact that the Florida rule was a compromise that allowed judicial campaigns to establish committees to solicit funds and allowed the candidate to know who had contributed and allowed the candidate to write thank you notes called into question whether the canon was narrowly tailored. But, as Justice Kagan noted, that might mean that the state would simply broaden the proscriptions, to include thank you notes for example, and asked whether that would be constitutional. Counsel for the petitioner ultimately answered in the negative, linking the election to the availability of money.
At the heart of this issue is whether judicial elections are like other elections or whether they are distinctly judicial.
Justice Ginsburg, who is decidedly in the camp that judicial elections are different, essentially urged her position at the beginning of the arguments ("the First Amendment allows the State to do things with respect to the election of judges that it wouldn't allow them to do with respect to the election of members of the legislature.")
Chief Justice Roberts seemingly leaned toward equating judicial and political elections, stating that "it's self-evident, particularly in judicial races" that "prohibiting a form of raising funds is to the great advantage of the incumbent" because the only way "incumbents are going to be challenged if you have somebody who can get their own distinct message out." Later he stated that the "fundamental choice was made by the State when they said we're going to have judges elected." This echoes Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, (2002).
Yet the issue of the coercion of the people being solicited, including attorneys as I have previously discussed, surfaced repeatedly. As Justice Sotomayor candidly revealed:
It's very, very, very rare that either by letter or by personal call that I ask a lawyer to do something, whether it's serve on a committee, help organize something, do whatever it is that I'm asking, that that lawyer will say no. Isn't it inherent in the lawyer/judge context that people are going to say yes?
Whether the Court "says yes" to the ability of a state to ban direct solicitation by judicial candidates will most likely result in a closely divided opinion.
Monday, January 19, 2015
ConLawProfBlog's own Prof. Ruthann Robson (CUNY) recently published her thoughtful, creative, and compelling piece on Williams-Yulee, the case testing Florida's ban on campaign contributions by judicial candidates, on the Supreme Court's calendar on Tuesday. Robson's Public Interest Lawyering & Judicial Politics: Four Cases Worth a Second Look in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar is part of Vanderbilt Law Review's Rountable on the case.
Robson takes a refreshing look at the issue of judicial candidate campaign contributions through the eyes of a public interest attorney. Indeed, she starts the piece with a personal testimonial about being solicited herself--and the awkward position that put her in. (Tellingly, her position wasn't so awkward for other, non-public interest attorneys. They simply contributed.)
She argues that public interest lawyers have a special interest in this issue, and in this case. That's because
as public interest attorneys, we are less likely to be able to contribute to judicial campaigns, but may feel more likely to comply with a solicitation because we know our clients are already at a disadvantage. Additionally, our opposing clients and counsel are often those who are precisely in the position of being solicited and of answering those solicitations with substantial contributions.
She makes her case by persuasively arguing for a "second look" at four earlier decisions--newer and older, all touching on judicial integrity--that in different ways illustrate why a ruling for Williams-Yulee (overturning Florida's ban) "would have a disproportionately negative impact on the public interest bar." Those cases are Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (striking Minnesota's rule that prohibited judicial candidates from announcing their views on disputed issues); Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. (holding that the failure of a state high court judge to recuse himself from a case involving a major donor violated due process); Shelley v. Kraemer (holding that the judiciary is subject to the same constitutional constraints that the other branches are); and In Re Hawkins (Fl. Sup. Ct.) (upholding a sanction of removal from the bench after a judge sold her book to attorneys with cases before her).
Robson's "second look" cases together illustrate why an impartial judiciary, and the appearance of an impartial judiciary, are so important--to the public, to be sure, but especially to public interest attorneys and their clients. They also show how a ruling for Williams-Yulee (a former public defender herself) could so adversely affect the public interest bar.
Robson's piece brings a voice to this case--the voice of the underrepresented and their attorneys--that's all-too-often lost in sterile arguments about free speech. And she shows why the Court should pay attention to that voice.
[Public interest attorneys] should not have to worry whether [judges] think we "support" them, or whether our adversaries "support" them. We should not have to curry favor through financial contributions directly requested by a person who is hearing our client's causes. To do our work, we must continue to have faith that our judges, whether elected or whether appointed to the United States Supreme Court, are not mere politicians.
An excellent piece that adds to the debate. Check it out.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
The Brennan Center issued a report this week concluding that very wealthy "independent" spenders are the primary beneficiaries of the five-year-old Citizens United. Daniel Weiner, the report's author, says, "This is perhaps the most troubling result of Citizens United: In a time of historic wealth inequality, the decision has helped reinforce the growing sense that our democracy primarily serves the interests of the wealthy few, and that democratic participation for the vast majority of our citizens is of relatively little value." Weiner explains that wealthy individuals spend through super-PACs and dark money group, "while often sponsoring candidates like racehorses."
The report also looks at other Citizen United legacies, including the increase in dark money election spending by publicly held corporations, weakening contribution limits, and trampling shareholder and employee rights (because shareholders and employees are often kept in the dark about corporate spending).
So: What to do? David Gans of the Constitutional Accountability Center has one idea. He argues this week in the LA Times that Congress should encourage political participation (campaign contributions) by small donors through contribution tax credits. Gans explains that Congress passed just such a tax credit in 1972, and that it lasted until 1986. But it is no more. He also explains why a tax credit should have bipartisan support (as it did in 1972). Gans elaborates on his argument in an issue brief titled Participation and Campaign Finance: The Case for a Federal Tax Credit.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly (D.D.C.) this week rejected a non-profit's challenge to the disclosure provisions in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The ruling was unsurprising, even if the case may be noteworthy, as it represents a next wave of challenges to campaign finance regulation.
The Independence Institute, a Colorado non-profit, sought declaratory and injunctive relief against FEC enforcement of BCRA's disclosure requirement as applied to a specific radio ad that the Institute planned to run before the fall elections. The Institute argued that the requirement was overbroad as applied, because the planned ad was genuine issue advocacy, and not express advocacy.
Judge Kollar-Kotelly was blunt in rejecting this argument:
This dispute can be distilled to the application of the Supreme Court's clear instructions in Citizens United: in no uncertain terms, the Supreme Court rejected the attempt to limit BCRA's disclosure requirements to express advocacy and its functional equivalent. Plaintiff in this case seeks the same relief that has already been foreclosed by Citizens United.
Judge Kollar-Kotelly then rejected the Institute's attempts to distinguish Citizens United, ruled in favor of the FEC, and upheld the disclosure requirement.
This ruling was hardly surprising: if a court is going to overturn disclosure requirements, it'll have to be the Supreme Court. Still, the case should get our attention as a next-wave challenge to campaign speech regulation--the challenge to disclosure requirements.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
In an Order today, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in the closely-watched case of Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar involving a First Amendment challenge to a state rule prohibiting the personal solicitation of campaign contributions in a judicial election.
The Florida Supreme Court's per curiam opinion rejected the First Amendment challenge to Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 7C(1), which as the court notes, is substantially similar to Canons 4.1(A)(8) and 4.4 of the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct. The Florida Canon provides:
A candidate, including an incumbent judge, for a judicial office that is filled by public election between competing candidates shall not personally solicit campaign funds, or solicit attorneys for publicly stated support, but may establish committees of responsible persons to secure and manage the expenditure of funds for the candidate's campaign and to obtain public statements of support for his or her candidacy. Such committees are not prohibited from soliciting campaign contributions and public support from any person or corporation authorized by law. A candidate shall not use or permit the use of campaign contributions for the private benefit of the candidate or members of the candidate's family.
The Florida Supreme Court held that the Canon satisfied strict scrutiny, finding that there were two compelling governmental interests (preserving the integrity of the judiciary and maintaining the public's confidence in an impartial judiciary) and that the provision was narrowly tailored to serve these interests (the prohibition of direct fundraising nevertheless allows for the establishment of "campaign committees" to raise funds).
The Florida Supreme Court noted that "every state supreme court that has examined the constitutionality of comparable state judicial ethics canons" has upheld their constitutionality, citing opinions from the state supreme courts of Arkansas, Maine, and Oregon, opinions that the court discusses throughout its analysis. The Florida Supreme Court footnotes this statement in an interesting manner:
As to the federal courts that have considered this issue—whose judges have lifetime appointments and thus do not have to engage in fundraising—the federal courts are split. Several federal courts have held that laws similar to Canon 7C(1) are constitutional. See Wersal v. Sexton, 674 F.3d 1010 (8th Cir. 2012); Bauer v. Shepard, 620 F.3d 704 (7th Cir. 2010); Siefert v. Alexander, 608 F.3d 974 (7th Cir. 2010); Stretton v. Disciplinary Bd. of S. Ct. of Pa., 944 F.2d 137 (3d Cir. 1991). Conversely, other federal courts have held that laws similar to Canon 7C(1) are unconstitutional. See Carey v. Wolnitzek, 614 F.3d 189 (6th Cir. 2010); Weaver v. Bonner, 309 F.3d 1312 (11th Cir. 2002).
[emphasis added]. Thus, the Florida Supreme Court declined to follow the Eleventh Circuit's finding that a similar judicial canon from Georgia, one of Florida's fellow-Eleventh Circuit states, was persuasive, observing that federal judges are not elected and seemingly implying that this may influence their reasoning.
Now that the United States Supreme Court has taken certiorari, however, it seems that the First Amendment issue will be resolved by Justices who are not elected. Interestingly, since retiring from the Court, former Justice O'Connor has criticized judicial elections as dangerous to a fair and impartial judiciary, but of course she will not be amongst those making the ultimate decision. Perhaps she will file an amicus brief?
Thursday, September 25, 2014
The Seventh Circuit this week reversed an earlier district court injunction halting a criminal investigation into coordination between Governor Scott Walker's campaign committee and "independent" groups on issue advocacy. We posted on the injunction here.
Recall that the Milwaukee County District Attorney asked a state court to initiate a "John Doe" criminal investigation into alleged coordination between Walker's campaign committee and "independent" groups on issue advocacy. As part of the investigation, the court issued subpoenas, including one to Eric O'Keefe, who manages the Wisconsin Club for Growth, Inc., one of these "independent" groups. The state court granted O'Keefe's motion to quash. The prosecutor took the issue to the state's higher courts, but, before those courts could rule, O'Keefe filed in federal court, seeking an injunction and monetary damages against the prosecutors. The district court granted the injunction (thus halting the investigation), ruled that the defendants did not enjoy qualified immunity, and ordered the defendants to return or destroy all documents obtained in the investigation.
The Seventh Circuit reversed the injunction and dismissed the case. It held that the Anti-Injunction Act and principles of equity, comity, and federalism prohibit it. The court said that the plaintiffs couldn't show irreparable injury, that they had adequate remedies under state law, and that federal relief was not appropriate. Because the state court judge "concluded that the investigation should end as a matter of state law, because [the prosecutor] lacks evidence that state law has been violated . . . [t]he result is an injunction unnecessary at best, advisory at worst."
The court also took the district judge to task for effectively anticipating a Supreme Court ruling that would allow the kind of coordination alleged here under the First Amendment. That hasn't happened (yet), said the court, and the district judge was wrong to base the injunction on it.
The court said that the district judge was also wrong to deny qualified immunity.
Plaintiffs' claim to the constitutional protection for raising funds to engage in issue advocacy coordinated with a politician's campaign committee has not been established 'beyond debate.' To the contrary, there is a lively debate among judges and academic analysts. . . . No opinion of the Supreme Court, or by any court of appeals, establishes ('clearly' or otherwise) that the First Amendment forbids regulation of coordination between campaign committees and issue-advocacy groups--let alone that the First Amendment forbids even an inquiry into that topic.
Thus, the defendants enjoy qualified immunity.
Finally, the court held that "Wisconsin, not the federal judiciary, should determine whether, and to what extent, documents gathered in a John Doe proceeding are disclosed to the public." The court said that the federal district court "should ensure that sealed documents in the federal record stay sealed, as long as documents containing the same information remain sealed in the state-court record."
This ruling almost surely marks the end of the federal case. Because of the Anti-Injunction Act and the state of First Amendment law on campaign finance, this is not a good candidate for en banc or Supreme Court review.
September 25, 2014 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Federalism, First Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Music, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, September 15, 2014
In a 25 page opinion replete with bolded underlined language, Judge Timothy Black held Ohio's statutory provisions prohibiting political false statements in Susan B. Anthony List v. Ohio Elections Commission.
Recall that the United States Supreme Court heard the case as Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus last Term and unanimously held that the case was ripe for review, reversing the Sixth Circuit. The Court's opinion made little mention of the substantive First Amendment arguments, although at oral argument, counsel for the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, referred to the Ohio Election Commission as a "ministry of truth," a characterization later echoed by Justice Scalia.
Judge Black refrains from an explicit Orwellian allusion, but he expresses a similar sentiment: "we do not want the Government (i.e., the Ohio Elections Commission) deciding what is political truth." (bold underlining in original). However, Judge Black does resort to a phrase attributed to the character Frank Underwood in the television show House of Cards: “There’s no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth.” (bold underlining in original).
Doctrinally, Judge Black relies on United States v. Alvarez in which the Court found the “Stolen Valor” statute unconstitutional, noting that the four Justice plurality held that strict scrutiny should apply and concluding that the federal statute was not necessary to achieve compelling interests and that less restrictive alternatives existed.
In considering the compelling government interest prong, Judge Black distinguished McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Committee (1995), the Court held unconstitutional a state statute prohibited the distribution of campaign literature that does not contain the name and address of the person or campaign official issuing the literature. This "right to be anonymous" seemed to rest in part on the government interest in ensuring truthfulness, but as Judge Black writes:
However, in McIntyre, the Supreme Court did not describe the state interest in preventing false speech as “compelling” or even “substantial,” saying only that it was “legitimate” and has “special weight during election campaigns.” McIntyre expressly refrained from any decision regarding the constitutionality of Ohio’s political false-statements laws. Moreover, Defendants cite no evidence that the false statements laws are “actually necessary” to achieve their interest. To be actually necessary, there must be a direct causal link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented. Id.6 Here, instead, Defendants admit that “the consequences of deceptive false statements on elections are ... inherently difficult to quantify.”
As to the narrowly tailored prong, Judge Black found that the statute chilled protected truthful speech, especially important in the political context. Judge Black again emphasizes that the remedy for false speech is true speech, even as he notes that he is not convinced that "counterspeech will always expose lies," especially "in the wake of Citizens United." Nevertheless, the problem of government-determined truth is problematical:
we certainly do not want the Government (i.e., the OEC) deciding what is political truth anyway, for fear that the Government might persecute those who criticize the Government or its leaders. Ultimately, whether or not it is possible to create a system by which impartial citizens could identify lies from the truth is unclear. What is crystal clear, however, is that Ohio’s statutes fail in this respect. The process is inherently flawed.
Judge Black issued both a preliminary and permanent injunction so that the decision is a "final, appealable Order." Whether or not Ohio officials will choose to return to the Sixth Circuit remains to be seen.
Friday, September 12, 2014
Senate Republicans unanimously blocked the campaign finance constitutional amendment proposed by Democrats. The measure, S.J. Res. 19, failed 54 to 42, short of the 60 votes necessary to close debate and move to a vote on the merits.
The proposed amendment would have overturned Citizens United and allowed Congress and state legislatures to regulate campaign contributions and spending. It read:
Section 1. To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.
Section 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.
Section 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
Republicans argued that the measure infringed on free speech. Senator Ted Cruz captured the point when he said that SNL producer "Lorne Michaels could be put in jail under this amendment for making fun of any politician." That seems pretty unlikely, but still possible under the language. Politifact gave it a "half-true," based on interviews with several ConLawProfs.
Monday, September 1, 2014
In her new book, Corruption from Harvard University Press, ConLawProf Zephyr Teachout argues that campaign finance reform is constitutional and that the anti-corruption principle is one that originalists should embrace rather than disparage.
When Louis XVI presented Benjamin Franklin with a snuff box encrusted with diamonds and inset with the King’s portrait, the gift troubled Americans: it threatened to “corrupt” Franklin by clouding his judgment or altering his attitude toward the French in subtle psychological ways. This broad understanding of political corruption—rooted in ideals of civic virtue—was a driving force at the Constitutional Convention.
For two centuries the framers’ ideas about corruption flourished in the courts, even in the absence of clear rules governing voters, civil officers, and elected officials. Should a law that was passed by a state legislature be overturned because half of its members were bribed? What kinds of lobbying activity were corrupt, and what kinds were legal? When does an implicit promise count as bribery? In the 1970s the U.S. Supreme Court began to narrow the definition of corruption, and the meaning has since changed dramatically. No case makes that clearer than Citizens United.
Teachout has argued her position in op-eds in the Washington Post and in Politico after the Court's decision last term in McCutcheon v. FEC, (more of our McCutcheon discussion is here, here, here, and here).
Additionally, Teachout - - - along with Tim Wu, also a law professor - - - is running for state wide office in New York. Teachout is running for Governor against the incumbent Andrew Cuomo and Wu is running for Lieutenant Governor in next week's primary election. (Teachout prevailed in lawsuits brought by the Cuomo campaign challenging her eligibility based on residency). Interestingly, the New York Times endorsed Wu, but did not endorse either Teachout or Cuomo in the Governor's race, citing Teachout's lack of demonstrated "breadth of interests and experience needed to govern a big and diverse state" and Cuomo's failure to keep his "most important promise" of addressing "corruption." The primary is September 9.