Friday, August 18, 2017
Politics: Facts & Circumstances Test Survives Constitutional Challenge; Donor Disclosure Decision & Debate
In a little noticed decision, but perhaps only because of the conclusion it reached, a federal district court in one of the cases arising out of the IRS application controversy rejected a constitutional challenge to the facts and circumstances test for political campaign activity embodied in Revenue Ruling 2004-6. In Freedom Path v. IRS (N.D.Tex. July 7, 2017), the court considered a motion for partial summary judgment asserting that the test was unconstitutionally vague in violation of both the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the First Amendment, as well as being overbroad and promoting viewpoint discrimination in further violation of the First Amendment. The court found that the identification of eleven specific and objective, although non-exclusive, factors in the Revenue Ruling was sufficient to defeat the facial challenge to the ruling based on vagueness. With respect to the First Amendment claims, the court distinguished decisions in the campaign finance area on the grounds that the tax rules relate to what types of speech will be subsidized through the federal tax system, as opposed to banning, restraining, or punishing speech, and concluded that the ruling therefore surveyed First Amendment challenge.
The other currently hot constitutional and policy topic relating to politics and nonprofits is the extent to which the government can or should compel the disclosure of information relating to nonprofits involved in political activities or politically sensitive areas. There have two recent interesting developments in this area. First, in Matter of Evergreen Assn. v. Schneiderman (June 21, 2017), a state appellate court in New York limited the scope of a subpoena to a nonprofit organization on the grounds that it "infringed on the First Amendment right of the [nonprofit and its staff] to freedom of association, and was not sufficiently tailored to serve the compelling investigative purpose for which it was issued." The nonprofit at issue operates crisis pregnancy centers and the investigation related to the alleged unauthorized practice of medicine at those centers. The subpoena sought, among other information, a broad range of information relating to individuals and organizations associated with the nonprofit, including all of its staff; the court ordered that the subpoena be limited to information pertaining to the alleged unauthorized practice of medicine, with the trial court to conduct an in camera review of responsive documents to determine which ones satisfied this requirement.
Finally, there was an interesting addition to the ongoing debate about "dark money" and politically active nonprofits. Writing in the American Prospect, Nan Aron and Abby Levine of the Alliance for Justice argue against blanket disclosure of donors to politically active nonprofits such as social welfare organizations, instead supporting an approach that distinguishes between groups that "are funded by a small group of big donors and those that receive broad support from many people." Their arguments echo some of the more thoughtful supporters of campaign finance disclosure rules (see, for example, Richard Briffault (Columbia)), who recognize that the purported goals of such disclosure are not furthered by publicly identifying the many relatively small donors to candidates and political parties, so so such disclosure should be "rightsized" to target the information that is actually helpful to voters.