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.