Thursday, February 16, 2017
The Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday that a lower court should go ahead and rule on a First Amendment challenge to Tennessee's Campaign Finance Disclosure Act, and not wait for the outcome of a state administrative proceeding in a different case. The court also hinted toward a likely outcome: the Act violates the First Amendment.
The decision overturns the lower court's invocation of Pullman abstention and orders the lower court to move ahead to the merits. But the Sixth Circuit still gave the lower court a chance to certify interpretation of the state law to the Tennessee Supreme Court (but suggested that this wouldn't really help).
The case arose when two parents of school-aged children formed an unincorporated group to advocate in an upcoming school board election. The group planned to spend less than $250 on independent expenditures, and not make any direct campaign contributions to candidates.
But group members learned that Tennessee law might regulate their activities. The Tennessee Campaign Financial Disclosure Act defines a "political campaign committee" as "a combination of two (2) or more individuals, including any political part governing body, whether state or local, making expenditures, to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure." The Act goes on to require committees to pay an annual registration fee, appoint a treasurer, maintain a separate bank account, file financial disclosure statements, and keep financial records--all things that the two members weren't prepared to do.
So they sued in federal court, arguing that the Act violated the First Amendment. But the district court punted, invoking Pullman abstention, and citing a pending state administrative proceeding involving the application of the Act to a different group.
The Sixth Circuit reversed. The court said that Pullman abstention wasn't appropriate here, because the state administrative proceeding dealt with different issues (and not the ones that the plaintiffs raised here), because the Act wasn't "so ambiguous as to necessitate abstention," and because the Act wasn't really susceptible to a limiting construction that would save it from a First Amendment challenge.
The court left open an option for the district court to certify a question on the construction of the Act to the Tennessee Supreme Court. But it also suggested that certification wouldn't do any good, because the Act says what it says.