Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Ninth Circuit Upholds Alaska's Contribution Limits, Except its Nonresident Aggregate Contribution Limit
The Ninth Circuit ruled in Thompson v. Hebdon that Alaska's person-to-candidate, person-to-non-political-party-group, and political-party-to-candidate contribution limits were valid. But at the same time the court struck the state's nonresident aggregate contribution limit as a violation of free speech.
The case tested four separate provisions of Alaska's campaign finance law.
The first provision limits individual contribution to candidates to $500. Based on trial court evidence, the Ninth Circuit held that the limit was "narrowly focused" to address actual and potential quid pro quo corruption in the state. As to the amount, the court noted that $500 was low, but not unreasonably so, and still allowed candidates plenty of opportunities to fund their campaigns. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the cap should be measured in comparison to the prior limit, $1,000, and that the state should justify the drop.
The second provision limits individual contributions to non-party organizations to $500. The court upheld this limit as a measure designed to avoid circumvention of the individual contribution limit, above. "We conclude that Alaska has demonstrated the same interest here where the risk of circumvention of the individual-to-candidate limit is apparent: under Alaska law, any two individuals could form a 'group,' which could then funnel money to a candidate. Such groups could easily become pass-through entities for, say, a couple that wants to contribute more than the $500 individual-to-candidate limit."
The third provision limits political party contributions to candidates to $5,000. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that this amounts to discriminatory treatment (in comparison to labor-union PACs), but noted that its ruling doesn't foreclose a challenge to the dollar amount.
Finally, the fourth provision limits nonresident aggregate contributions to $3,000. Here's why:
Alaska fails to show why an out-of-state individual's early contribution is not corrupting, whereas a later individual's contribution--i.e., a contribution made after the candidate has already amassed $3,000 in out-of-state funds--is corrupting. Nor does Alaska show that an out-of-state contribution of $500 is inherently more corrupting than a like in-state contribution--only the former of which is curbed under Alaska's nonresident limit. Alaska fails to demonstrate that the risk of quid pro quo corruption turns on a particular donor's geography. Accordingly, while we do not foreclose the possibility that a state could limit out-of-state contributions in furtherance of an anti-corruption interest, Alaska's aggregate limit on what a candidate may receive is a poor fit.
Chief Judge Thomas concurred on the first three provisions, but dissented on this last one. Judge Thomas argued that the limit furthered the state's interests in actual quid pro quo corruption and its appearance and its interest in preserving "self-governance."
Friday, November 23, 2018
In her Decision and Order in People of State of New York v. Donald Trump (and three of the Trump children and the Trump Foundation), Justice Saliann Scarpulla denied Trumps' motion to dismiss the complaint by New York's Attorney General seeking dissolution of the Trump Foundation for violations of New York's Not-for-Profit Corporation Law and New York Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law.
The motion to dismiss argued in part that the state court lacked jurisdiction over "Mr. Trump" because pursuant to the Supremacy Clause, Article VI, a "sitting president may not be sued. As Justice Scarpulla stated, the New York Attorney General noted that Trump "failed to cite a single case in which any court has dismissed a civil action against a sitting president on Supremacy Clause grounds, where, as here, the action is based on the president's unofficial acts." Justice Scarpulla relied the United States Supreme Court's unanimous 1997 decision of Clinton v. Jones holding that then-President Clinton was subject to a civil action, and agreeing with another New York judge in Zervos v. Trump, held that this extended to state courts as well as federal. Justice Scarpulla rejected Trump's arguments that state courts are less fair to federal officials and less able to manage accommodations for a sitting president, pointing out that state courts were equally fair and competent. She also rejected the argument that state courts were less suited to address legal issues against federal officials: "The dissenting opinion that Respondents cite for this proposition simply noted that federal courts have greater expertise than state courts in applying federal law" and here, "resolution of the petition is governed entirely by New York law, thus a federal court's alleged superior knowledge of federal law is inapposite."
The Trump respondents also argued the petition should be dismissed because of bias by the former Attorney General and the office as a whole. Justice Scarpulla concluded that there was not a sufficient evidentiary basis for bias, conflict of interest, or abuse of confidence, and that "given the very serious allegations set forth in the petition," there is "no basis for finding that animus and bias were the sole motivating factors" for the petition.
The Trump respondents also raised grounds for dismissal of specific claims, including claims surrounding the misuse of foundation funds during the campaign; Justice Scarpulla rejected all of these.
Justice Scarpulla's order notes that the Foundation has been "attempting to voluntarily dissolve for the past two years" and urges the parties to reach an agreement leading to that dissolution. Justice Scarpulla did dismiss as moot one count of the petition which sought an injunction against continuing operation of the Foundation, stating that the Trumps were attempting to dissolve the foundation and that no injunction was necessary.
This decision by a trial judge — New York's Supreme Courts are trial courts — is not a final order, but if Trump's past litigation strategies are any indication, he will attempt to forestall answering the petition, which Justice Scarpulla ordered be done within 45 days.
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
The Supreme Court yesterday declined to stay a lower court ruling that struck an FEC reg that created a disclosure loophole for 501(c)(4) organizations.
The reg allowed 501(c)(4)s and cooperating super-PACs to avoid statutory disclosure requirements. The district court ruled that the reg was at odds with statutory disclosure requirements.
Chief Justice Roberts last week issued an order (without opinion) staying the district court ruling, but yesterday the full Court vacated the Chief's order and denied the stay (also without an opinion).
Under the (now not stayed) district court ruling, the FEC has 45 days to come up with new regs that comply with the statute.
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Eighth Circuit: Missouri Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Inter-PAC Contributions Violates First Amendment
In its brief opinion in Free and Fair Election Fund v. Missouri Ethics Commission, a panel of the Eighth Circuit agreed with the district judge that Mo. Const. Art. VIII §23.3 violates the First Amendment.
The Missouri constitutional provision, approved by voters in November 2016, prohibited political action committees (PACs) from receiving contributions from other political action committees. The PAC Free and Fair Election Fund quickly challenged the constitutional amendment contending that the inter-PAC transfer ban violated the First Amendment. The district judge and appellate panel agreed, reasoning that restricting the recipients to whom a PAC can donate "limits the donor-PAC’s speech and associational rights under the First Amendment," and thus "the challenged law must advance a sufficiently important state interest and employ means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of First Amendment freedoms."
Quoting McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), the Eighth Circuit reasoned:
There is only one legitimate state interest in restricting campaign finances: “preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.” This interest is limited to preventing “only a specific type of corruption—‘quid pro quo’ corruption” or its appearance. A large donation that is not made “in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to . . . quid pro quo corruption.” Similarly, the general risk that a donor, through large donations, will “garner influence over or access to elected officials or political parties,” either in fact or in appearance, is insufficient to create quid pro quo corruption. Instead, “the risk of quid pro quo corruption is generally applicable only to the narrow category of money gifts that are directed, in some manner, to a candidate or officeholder.”
[citations omitted]. The Eighth Circuit held that the inter-PAC transfer ban "does little, if anything, to further the objective of preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption," distinguishing the 2016 Eleventh Circuit decision in Alabama Democratic Conference v. Attorney General of Alabama, because "unlike Alabama, Missouri limits the contributions that a PAC can make to a candidate, so the anti-corruption interest cited in support of the Alabama law is diminished here."
The Eighth Circuit further found that the transfer ban was not closely drawn: "the risk of corruption from PAC- to-PAC transfers is modest at best, and other regulations like contribution limits and disclosure requirements act as prophylactic measures against quid pro quo corruption."
The Eighth Circuit affirmed the injunction against the Missouri constitutional provision, perhaps setting up a circuit conflict on the constitutionality of inter-PAC transfers.
Tuesday, September 4, 2018
In its Report entitled The Civil Rights Record of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. of the NAACP supports its opposition to the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.
At just shy of 100 pages, the Report details concerns regarding Kavanaugh's record in areas such as executive power, criminal justice, qualified immunity, voting rights, campaign finance, reproductive rights, Second Amendment, and access to justice issues such as standing and pro se litigants. But importantly, the Report makes clear:
even before considering the opinions he has authored, the speeches he has given, and his full legal record, the following is true: Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination is tainted by the influence of reactionary groups in his selection by the President and by the President’s assertion that his nominees will target and overturn settled Supreme Court precedent. A woefully inadequate document production is thwarting the Senate’s “advice and consent” function and the ability of the American public to determine whether they want their Senators to support this nominee. And perhaps most significantly, the President’s credibility has been sapped by the ongoing investigations that raise questions about the legitimacy of his occupancy of the Oval Office and the vast powers it confers, such as the nomination of Supreme Court Justices. This highly unusual and critical context powerfully bears on our assessment of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Yet the report does delve deeply into Kavanaugh's decisions and reaches conclusions. For example, after a discussion of his decisions about campaign finance, the Report states:
Judge Kavanaugh’s campaign finance record provides four overarching themes. First, Judge Kavanaugh appears hostile to campaign finance regulations, seeming to be unwilling to uphold regulations beyond a narrow anti-corruption rationale. Second, Judge Kavanaugh’s BCRA interpretation [in Bluman v. Federal Election Committee] about the scope of issue-advocacy expenditures would allow foreign actors to engage in thinly veiled “issue advocacy” that deepens racial and religious division leading up to elections. Such a narrow interpretation of the BCRA prevents it from barring foreign actors who influence U.S. elections in concrete ways and increases the likelihood of the use of these racial appeals during the next federal election, an important tool of suppressing the votes of communities of color. Third, as evident in Emily’s List [v. Federal Election Commission], Judge Kavanaugh appears willing to reach out unnecessarily to decide issues in this context. Fourth, Judge Kavanaugh would likely revisit the soft-money limits on contributions to political parties as justice.
At several points, the Report suggests questions and specific focus for the Senate questioning. The hearings begin today.
Sunday, August 5, 2018
Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell (D.D.C.) ruled on Friday in CREW v. FEC that an FEC regulatory loophole that allows 501(c)(4) organizations and cooperating super-PACs to avoid statutory disclosure requirements was invalid. The ruling strikes the FEC regulation, invalidates the FEC's dismissal of CREW's administrative complaint against Crossroads GPS, and means that the FEC has to reconsider the complaint for failure to disclose contributors. Judge Howell stayed the ruling to give the FEC time to issue valid interim regulations.
The ball's now in the FEC's court. Depending on what the FEC does, this ruling could strike a serious blow to 501(c)(4)s and cooperating super-PACs that use the regulatory loophole to fly under the radar and evade disclosure of contributors.
The case tests the FEC disclosure reg at 11 C.F.R. Sec. 109.10(e)(1)(vi) against the authorizing federal law at 52 U.S.C. Secs. 30104(c)(1) and (c)(2)(C). The reg requires a non-political committee (like a 501(c)(4) organization) to report "[t]he identification of each person who made a contribution in excess of $200 to the person filing such report, which contribution was made for the purpose of furthering the reported independent expenditure." The statute requires a non-political committee "who makes independent expenditures in an aggregate amount or value in excess of $250 during a calendar year" to report "the identification of each person who made a contribution in excess of $200 to the person filing such statement which was made for the purpose of furthering an independent expenditure."
The court explained how the reg falls short:
First, the challenged regulation wholly fails to implement another disclosure requirement, mandated in 52 U.S.C. Sec. 30104(c)(1), requiring reporting not-political committees to identify non-trivial donors, as well as the date and amounts of their contributions, when the contributions were made for political purposes to influence any election for federal office, or at the request or authorization of a candidate or the candidate's agent. Such contributions may, in fact, be intended to fund the not-political committee's own contributions and be routed to candidates, political parties, or political committees, such as super PACs. Second, the challenged regulation impermissibly narrows the mandated disclosure in 52 U.S.C. Sec. 30104(c)(2)(C), which requires the identification of such donors contributing for the purpose of furthering the not-political committee's own express advocacy for or against the election of a federal candidate, even when the donor has not expressly directed that the funds be used in the precise manner reported.
These disjunctions between the reg and the statute allow non-political committees and cooperating super-PACs to evade disclosure requirements. The court explains how this works:
Reading subsection (c)(1) out of the statute makes a difference. By contrast to the donors covered in subsection (c)(2)(C), who contributed to support the not-political committee's independent expenditures . . . the donors covered in subsection (c)(1) contributed to not-political committees to support political efforts in connection with federal elections, which contributions may be used by the not-political committee, in some cases, to contribute directly to candidates or political committees, including to fund super PACs. For example, super PACs set up only to make independent expenditures, may receive unlimited contributions from donors, including not-political committees, to fund their independent expenditure activity. While super PACs, as political committees, must disclose their contributors, those disclosed contributors may serve merely as pass-through entities to route the funds to the super PAC.
Indeed, super PACs are often affiliated with not-political committees, such as 501(c)(4) organizations, because, as a political committee and not-political committee, respectively, each entity "abides by a particular set of rules, enjoys distinct opportunities, and is subject to different restraints." Allowing not-political committees to mask donors, who otherwise are subject to disclosure under subsection (c)(1), facilitates the role of these organizations as pass-throughs, enabling donors to contribute to super PACs without being identified by routing their contributions through affiliated 501(c)(4) organizations or other types of not-political committees. Absent enforcement of subjection (c)(1), super PACs disclose the identities of contributing not-political committees, but the latter do not disclose the original contributors, subverting the FECA's broad disclosure regime.
The ruling strikes the FEC reg, but gives the Commission another bite at the apple--45 days to issue interim regs that comply with the statute.
Thursday, May 24, 2018
The Ninth Circuit yesterday upheld Montana's political committee reporting and disclosure requirements against First Amendment challenges by a group whose major purpose was not political advocacy. The ruling keeps these requirements on the books.
The case arose when the group Montanans for Community Development refrained from sending a pro-job-growth mailer that mentioned certain candidates in upcoming state elections, because it would have to comply with state political committee reporting and disclosure requirements. MCD sued, arguing that the requirements were unconstitutionally vague, that they were overbroad, and that they were unconstitutional as applied to MCD (as a group whose major purpose wasn't political advocacy).
The court, in a brief and unpublished opinion, rejected these claims. The court said that Montana law put a "person of ordinary intelligence [on] fair notice of what is prohibited" (and thus wasn't vague); that the requirements were substantially related to sufficiently important government interests of informing the electorate, deterring actual corruption and avoiding the appearance of corruption, and gathering data to enforce more substantive electioneering restrictions (and thus wasn't overbroad); and that "[p]olitical committee reporting and disclosure laws can extend beyond groups whose major purpose is political advocacy" (and thus survived MCD's as-applied challenge).
Thursday, May 3, 2018
The Ninth Circuit this week denied rehearing en banc of a panel ruling upholding Montana's contribution limits against a First Amendment challenge. Through a forceful dissent and response-to-the-dissent, judges on the court wrangled over the right standard for contribution limits in the wake of Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC.
The long-running, up-and-down case, now Lair v. Motl, tests Montana's low contribution limits, designed to address the state's unique history with political corruption. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld the limits, and the full court voted to deny en banc review.
In dissent, Judge Ikuta, joined by Judges Callahan, Bea, M. Smith, and N.R. Smith, argued that the panel applied too lenient a standard. In particular, Judge Ikuta wrote that under McCutcheon and Citizens United, "the only state interest that justifies contribution limits is the prevention of acts that 'would be covered by bribery laws if a quid pro quo arrangement were proved.'"
In light of the Supreme Court's clarification, a state can justify imposing regulations limiting individuals' political speech (via limiting political contributions) only by producing evidence that it has a real problem in combating actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption. . . . [T]he government must provide evidence that 'the harms it recites are real and that its restriction will in fact alleviate them to a material degree.'" To meet this test here, a state must show that it has a realistic need to prevent acts that 'would be covered by bribery laws" by (for instance) presenting evidence that large monetary contributions were made "to control the exercise of an officeholder's official duties" or "point[ing] to record evidence or legislative findings suggesting any special corruption problem." One thing is certain: the state cannot carry its burden with evidence showing only that large contributions increase donors' influence or access.
Judges Fisher and Murguia responded, arguing that the dissent's test "has never been adopted by the Supreme Court or this court." "The evidentiary standard established by the Supreme Court requires that a state need only demonstrate a risk of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance that is neither conjectural nor illusory."
Monday, March 26, 2018
Judge Amy Berman Jackson (D.D.C.) ruled on Friday that donors to a PAC don't have a First Amendment right against public disclosure of their identities as part of the FEC investigation file into their political contributions.
The ruling means that the FEC investigation file, including the contributors' identities, will be released, unless and until the ruling is appealed.
The case, John Doe 1 & John Doe 2 v. FEC, arose when the FEC launched an investigation into a series of transactions that landed Now or Never PAC with a $1.7 million contribution. The FEC's OGC learned that John Doe 2 sent about $1.7 million to Government Integrity; that Government Integrity wired about that amount to American Conservative Union; and that American Conservative Union, in turn, sent that amount on to Now or Never PAC.
The FEC's OGC recommended that the Commission find reason to believe that John Does 1 and 2 violated FECA's prohibition on "mak[ing] a contribution in the name of another person or knowingly permit[ting] his name to be used to effect such a contribution." The FEC rejected the recommendation, however, and sent the case to conciliation. Based on the results of conciliation, the FEC found that there was reason to believe that the plaintiffs, the PACs, and the treasurer of Now or Never violated FECA's prohibitions on making or receiving contributions in another person's name.
The FEC also advised that it would put the documents related to the case on the public record.
The John Does sued, arguing that this violated their First Amendment rights, among other things.
Judge Jackson disagreed. She noted initially that "plaintiffs do not make any claim that anyone's associational rights are being infringed, and disclosing the identities of plaintiffs here would not involve the disclosure of anyone's internal operations or political strategies." She also noted that the FEC recently revised its disclosure policy and tailored it "to minimize the burdens on constitutional rights while providing for sufficient disclosure to advancing legitimate concerns of deterring future violations and promoting Commission accountability."
She then wrote that "the constitutional issue has already been decided in the agency's favor." Quoting Citizens United,
The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.
Judge Jackson went on to hold that the FEC's disclosure policy is reasonable (under the APA) and consistent with FOIA.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
In its opinion in Citizens United v. Schneiderman, the Second Circuit rejected a challenge to the New York Attorney General's regulations requiring non‐profit organizations that solicit donations in NY to disclose their donors on a yearly basis.
The plaintiffs - - - Citizens United Foundation, a 501(c)(3)organization and Citizens United, a 501(c)(4) organization - - -have not been complying with the Attorney General's regulations requiring donor disclosure. Both organizations must submit to the IRS Form 990 with each year’s tax returns, which includes a Schedule B including the organization’s donors, the donors’ addresses, and the amounts of their donations. The Attorney General’s regulations have long required that a charitable organization’s annual disclosures include a copy of the IRS Form 990 and all of its schedules. 13 N.Y.C.R.R. § 91.5(C)(3)(1)(a). But the Citizens United organizations have only ever "submitted the first page of their Schedules B—omitting the parts identifying donors," which apparently went without objection until 2013.
The Citizens United organizations claimed that the New York disclosure requirements violated the First Amendment as chilling donors' speech, both facially and as applied. They also argued that the New York regulations were a prior restraint under the First Amendment. Additionally, they argued that the regulations violated due process and were preempted by the Internal Revenue Code.
The opinion by Judge Rosemary Pooler held that all of these challenges lacked merit. On the chilled speech claim, Judge Pooler's opinion for the unanimous panel found that the plaintiffs' reliance on National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. State of Alabama ex rel. Patterson (1958) was misplaced. The court applied exacting scrutiny, not the strict scrutiny that the Citizens United organizations advocated, and found the government interests of preventing fraud and self‐dealing in charities were important and the regulations made it easier to accomplish these goals. In the as-applied challenge, the Citizens United charities argued essentially that the current New York Attorney General was hostile to them, but the court stated:
In this case, all we have to go on is a bare assertion that the Attorney General has a vendetta against Appellants. Appellants have not even pled that the Attorney General will turn that alleged bile into untoward interference with the material support for Appellants’ expression. That is a far cry from the clear and present danger that white supremacist vigilantes and their abettors in the Alabama state government presented to members of the NAACP in the 1950s.
While Judge Pooler's opinion noted that it might be a closer case if the donor lists were to be made public, she noted that the IRC mandates that they remain confidential, and the NY regulations incorporate this requirement. The argument that NY might not follow this, or that there have been leaks, was not sufficient.
The court also found that the prior restraint challenge was without merit:
Facially content‐neutral laws that require permits or licenses of individuals or entities engaged in certain forms of expression only constitute prior restraints when they (1) disallow that expression unless it has previous permission from a government official and (2) vest that official with enough discretion that it could be abused.
Here, neither of those circumstances were met.
What Appellants complain of is not a proto‐censorship regime but the inevitability of prosecutorial discretion with finite enforcement resources. Prevention of their solicitation can only arise if they fail to comply with content‐neutral, unambiguous, and narrowly drawn standards for disclosure—they need only submit a document they already prepare and submit to the IRS—and then only after warning and opportunity to cure. It is, in other words, a remedial measure, not ex ante censorship. Moreover, without any indication of bias in application, we cannot view the Attorney General’s discretion to determine which groups receive deficiency notices or face penalties for failing to file Schedule B as anything but a necessary manifestation of the need to prioritize certain enforcement efforts over others.
While the district judge had found the due process challenge was not ripe, the Second Circuit reversed that conclusion, and decided on that the claim had not merit. Affirming the district judge, the Second Circuit found there was no preemption.
Thus, the Citizens United charitable organizations will need to disclose the same information to New York and they do to the IRS or else face penalties. But it may be that they use some of their donations to petition the United States Supreme Court for review.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
Today brings the news that the President is contemplating litigation to halt the publication of Fire and Fury:Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. This followed a reported cease and desist letter to former White House "chief strategist" and insider Steve Bannon for talking with Wolff in alleged violation of a nondisclosure agreement.
The letter to the book's publisher is reportedly based on a claim of defamation:
“Actual malice (reckless disregard for the truth) can be proven by the fact that the Book admits in the Introduction that it contains untrue statements. Moreover, the Book appears to cite to no sources for many of its most damaging statements about Mr. Trump. Also, many of your so-called ‘sources’ have stated publicly that they never spoke to Mr. Wolff and/or never made the statements that are being attributed to them. Other alleged ‘sources’ of statements about Mr. Trump are believed to have no personal knowledge of the facts upon which they are making statements or are known to be unreliable and/or strongly biased against Mr. Trump.”
But behind the obvious relevance of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) which set the doctrine of actual malice for defamation under the First Amendment, lurks another case involving the New York Times: New York Times v. United States (1971), often called the "Pentagon Papers Case."
It is the Pentagon Papers Case that solidified the disfavor for prior restraint.
The brief per curiam opinion in the 6-3 decision stated that there is "a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity," and the government "thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint." While it is certainly the United States government that is a party to the Pentagon Papers Case, most commentators and scholars believe that it was President Nixon who was at the forefront of the attempt to stop publication of the papers. Arguably, the Pentagon Papers involved "state secrets," but President Trump, like Nixon, has been criticized as conflating his own interests with that of the government.
It's thus a good time to reconsider the continuing relevance of the case and its litigation. One perspective is available in the movie The Post involving the Pentagon Papers and starring Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post.
Another good perspective is a recent conversation between James C. Goodale, author of Fighting for the Press: the Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles and Jeremy Scahill, one of the founders of The Intercept and author of Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, which I moderated at CUNY School of Law.
Here's the video:
January 4, 2018 in Books, Campaign Finance, Conferences, Current Affairs, Executive Authority, First Amendment, News, Separation of Powers, State Secrets, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, December 9, 2017
In its opinion in French v. Jones, a unanimous Ninth Circuit panel rejected a First Amendment challenge to a Montana judicial ethics rule restricting political endorsements in campaigns.
Montana Code of Judicial Conduct 4.1(A)(7) prohibits judicial candidates from seeking, accepting, or using endorsements from a political party/organization or partisan candidate, although it does allow political parties to endorse and even provide funds to judicial candidates. Affirming the district judge and upholding the provision's constitutionality, the Ninth Circuit opinion by Judge Jay Bybee surveys the United States Supreme Court's two opinions on the First Amendment and judicial campaign ethics - - - Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (2002) and Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar (2015) - - - and notes that although the Supreme Court has provided "mixed guidance," the "clear shift in favor of state regulation" and "palpable change" in Williams-Yulee renders the arguments of the challengers unavailing.
After a rehearsal of the cases, including a Ninth Circuit en banc decision, Judge Bybee applied strict scrutiny. Montana's compelling governmental interest of "actual and perceived judicial impartiality" had been accepted in Williams-Yulee. The second interest in a "structurally independent judiciary" is also evaluated, with a supporting citation to The Federalist No. 78, and implicitly found to be even "more compelling." The major challenge, however, was that the judicial canon was not narrowly tailored because it was "fatally underinclusive." On this issue, Judge Bybee's opinion again relied on the change wrought by Williams-Yulee, quoting language disapproving on underinclusiveness. More specifically, the court found that the interest in judicial independence was differently served by endorsements from political parties (whose use was prohibited by the canon) than by endorsements by interest groups. Likewise, the court found that permitting judicial candidates to solicit and use money from political parties was unpersuasive because endorsements are more public, although the information regarding contributions is also available to the public.
Additionally, the court rejected the equation between the announcement prohibition in White, which was found unconstitutional, and the political party endorsement prohibition at issue. Party endorsement is not simply "shorthand" for views. "An endorsement is a thing of value: it may attract voters' attention, jumpstart a campaign, give assurance that the candidate has been vetted, or provide legitimacy to an unknown candidate . . ."
The court also rejected the argument that Montana did not show political endorsements cause harm noting that such an argument could lead to a finding that Montana's choice of nonpartisan judicial elections was itself unconstitutional. Moreover, the elimination of judicial elections entirely is not a less restrictive means consistent with Williams-Yulee.
Although Williams-Yulee was a closely divided case and its reasoning not entirely clear, it provides the basis on which courts are upholding judicial campaigning restrictions.
Thursday, November 30, 2017
The en banc D.C. Circuit unanimously ruled this week that FECA's per-election base limits on campaign contributions don't violate free speech.
The ruling could give the Supreme Court a chance to reevaluate its stance on the constitutionality of base contributions, or at least per-election base contributions, in light of its most recent ruling on contributions, McCutcheon v. FEC. The Court in that case held that aggregate limits on base contributions violate free speech, even if base contributions themselves don't.
The plaintiffs in Holmes v. FEC challenged FECA's $2,600 base limit per candidate per election. The law means that a person can contribute up to $2,600 to a candidate in a primary, another $2,600 to that candidate in the general, and yet another $2,600 to that candidate in any runoff. In the usual course of things (without a runoff) this allows a person to contribute up to $5,200 to a candidate for the whole cycle.
The plaintiffs claimed that per-election restriction violated free speech, although they didn't take on all base limits. In other words, they wanted to contribute $0 to their favored candidates in the primaries, but $5,200 in the generals. The per-election restriction prevented them from doing that, and they claimed that this violated the First Amendment.
The D.C. Circuit disagreed. Citing Buckley v. Valeo (upholding per-election base limits against a free speech challenge, but not ruling specifically on the per-election nature of them) the court said that Congress's decision in FECA to create per-election restrictions (and not entire cycle restrictions) was a permissible way to implement base limits. In short, the court said that Congress had to create some timeframe for base contribution restrictions--because that's how base contributions work--and a per-election timeframe doesn't seem unreasonable. Said the court:
Contrary to plaintiffs' account of FECA, there is no $5,200 base contribution ceiling split between the primary and general elections. Instead, the Act by its terms established a $2,000 contribution limit, adjusted for inflation, which 'shall apply separately with respect to each [primary, general, and runoff] election.'
. . .
To impose a meaningful contribution ceiling, then, Congress has no choice but to specify some time period in which donors can contribute the maximum amount. There are a host of alternatives in that regard.
. . .
Just as Buckley did not require Congress to explain its choice of $1,000 rather than $2,000 as itself closely drawn to preventing corruption, we see no basis for requiring Congress to justify its choice concerning the other essential element of a contribution limit--its timeframe--as itself serving that interest.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Julie Silverbrook of The Constitutional Sources Project has a worthwhile "brief history" of the Emoluments Clause, including the text and this excerpt from The Federalist No. 22: "Evils of this description ought not to be regarded as imaginary. One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption." The passage goes on to contrast monarchies with republican governments, the former being less susceptible to corruption because the hereditary monarch "has so great a personal interest in the government, and in the external glory of the nation, that it is not easy for a foreign power to give him an equivalent for what he would sacrifice by treachery to the State."
Scholar Zephyr Teachout has also been discussing Emoluments, as we noted here; And now might be a good time to reread Teachout's 2014 book Corruption in America). [update: If you don't have the book handy, her 2012 essay, Gifts, Offices, and Corruption is available on ssrn.]
While it has been argued that the Emoluments Clause should not apply to the President as we noted here, its application to a President-Elect is even more uncertain.
Law professors looking for a class exercise (or perhaps a paper topic) could use any number of examples, although a "hypothetical" based on an Argentina construction project might be useful. Here is the situation courtesy of a storify of tweets and here is the piece from The Hill.
Monday, October 24, 2016
Profs. Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang (both of Emory), in cooperation with the American Constitution Society, recently published a comprehensive empirical study of state-court decisions in election cases. The result: State court judges are politically biased in these cases and thus favor their own party's interests in election disputes.
The study provides yet one more reason not to elect judges, especially in partisan elections.
The study, Partisan Justice: How Campaign Money Politicizes Judicial Decisionmaking in Election Cases, forthcoming in the Stanford Law Review, is based on data from over 500 election cases from all 50 states from 2005 to 2014, including over 2,500 votes from more than 400 judges in state supreme courts.
Analyzing a new dataset of cases from 2005 to 2014, this study finds that judicial decisions are systematically biased by these types of campaign finance and re-election influences to help their party's candidates win office and favor their party's interests in election disputes.
The study finds that judicial partisanship is significantly responsive to political considerations that have grown more important in today's judicial politics. Judicial partisanship in election cases increases, and elected judges become more likely to favor their own party, as party campaign-finance contributions increase.
But "[t]his influence of campaign money largely disappears for lame-duck judges without re-election to worry about."
Friday, September 30, 2016
The Eleventh Circuit this week rejected a First Amendment challenge to Alabama's ban on PAC-to-PAC political contributions. The ruling upholds Alabama's ban and deepens a split in the circuits.
The Alabama Democratic Conference, an Alabama PAC perhaps best known for its yellow sample ballot that it distributes to voters, brought the case, arguing that Alabama's law that bans political contributions between PACs violates free speech. The ADC gets money from individual contributors, other PACs, and even candidates; it spends money in support of particular candidates and independent advocacy. The ADC uses separate bank accounts for candidate contributions and its own independent expenditures. Still, the state's PAC-to-PAC transfer ban prohibited the ADC from receiving money from other PACs. So it sued.
The Eleventh Circuit upheld the state's transfer ban. The court ruled that the state enacted the ban in response to a concern by state voters that PAC-to-PAC transfers were being used to conceal the true identity of political contributors--and raised the appearance of quid pro quo corruption. Moreover, the court said that the ADC didn't do enough to segregate its two accounts to reduce the appearance that it might use other PACs' contributions for candidate contributions. Because the ban was closely drawn to address the appearance of corruption, the Eleventh Circuit upheld it.
The ruling aligns with the Second and Fifth Circuits, but against the Tenth, on the question whether a PAC-to-PAC transfer ban violates free speech, when a PAC has two separate accounts, one for candidate contributions and the other for independent expenditures.
Thursday, September 29, 2016
In its opinion in Rideout v. Gardner, the First Circuit, affirming the district judge, held that New Hampshire's prohibition of "ballot selfies" violates the First Amendment.
New Hamp. Rev. Statute §659.35, I, was amended in 2014 to provide:
No voter shall allow his or her ballot to be seen by any person with the intention of letting it be known how he or she is about to vote or how he or she has voted except as provided in RSA 659:20. This prohibition shall include taking a digital image or photograph of his or her marked ballot and distributing or sharing the image via social media or by any other means.
(amended language underlined). The rationale for the statute was to prevent situations in which voters could be coerced into providing proof that they voted in a particular way, and thus as a means to prevent vote-coercion or vote-buying.
Judge Sandra Lynch's succinct opinion for the First Circuit panel includes a discussion of the nineteenth century practice in which political parties and other organizations had the power to print their own ballots, which they printed in a manner as to make the ballots easily identifiable by size and color. "This practice allowed the ballot-printing organizations to observe how individuals voted at the polls, which in turn created an obviously coercive environment. " Thus, "New Hampshire undertook a series of reforms to combat widespread vote buying and voter intimidation" and in 1891 passed legislation requiring the Secretary of State to prepare ballots for state and federal elections, and in 1911 passed the precursor statute forbidding any voter from allowing the "ballot to be seen by any person, with the intention of letting it be known how he is about to vote."
New Hampshire's problem in defending the constitutionality of the 2014 statute is that the problem of vote-buying and coercion has been solved. As Judge Lynch stated, New Hampshire could not point to any such incidents since the nineteenth century (with the last complaint, seemingly unsubstantiated, being in 1976). While the state's interests might be compelling in the abstract, they need to be real. A broad prophylactic prohibition is unwarranted, despite worries about new technologies and media. Indeed, Judge Lynch wrote:
Digital photography, the internet, and social media are not unknown quantities -- they have been ubiquitous for several election cycles, without being shown to have the effect of furthering vote buying or voter intimidation. As the plaintiffs note, "small cameras" and digital photography "have been in use for at least 15 years," and New Hampshire cannot identify a single complaint of vote buying or intimidation related to a voter's publishing a photograph of a marked ballot during that period.
And even if there were a present problem that needed solving, "the statute still fails for lack of narrow tailoring." Judge Lynch's opinion for the panel stated that the statute infringed on the rights of all voters and not the smaller (or even nonexistence) pool of those motivated to cast a vote for illegal reasons. Additionally, there exist other state and federal laws prohibiting vote corruption which are adequate to address the problem, should it arise. In an interesting footnote, the court lists statutes from other states allowing ballot selfies and notes that these states have not reported "an uptick" in vote buying or voter intimidation.
The First Circuit opinion applied intermediate scrutiny under the First Amendment. The district judge had concluded the New Hampshire statute was a content-based regulation and applied strict scrutiny. However, relying on McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), the First Circuit reasoned that given that the statute fails the lower intermediate standard, the court need not "parse the differences" between the two standards in this case. Nevertheless, the First Circuit did note that the New Hampshire statute affects voters who are engaged in "core political speech," and in a footnote quoted from the amicus brief for Snapchat that "younger voters" especially use ballot selfies as political expression.
Governments contemplating prohibiting "ballot selfies" would be wise to reconsider after a read of Rideout v. Gardner.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Judge Christopher R. Cooper (D.D.C.) ruled earlier this week that the controlling members of the FEC applied the wrong legal analysis in concluding that two groups were not "political committees" under federal campaign finance law. The ruling reverses and remands to the FEC for reconsideration.
The case matters because designation as a "political committee" triggers more stringent reporting requirements under campaign finance law. Judge Cooper's ruling makes it more likely that a group would be considered a "political committee," and thus marks a victory for campaign disclosure advocates.
The case arose when CREW lodged a complaint with the FEC that two groups, American Action Network and Americans for Job Security, were unregistered "political committees." Those groups spent money on TV ads and other electioneering communication in three congressional districts in the 2010 elections. In response to CREW's complaint, three FEC commissioners determined that the groups' "major purpose" wasn't "the nomination or election of a candidate," and therefore that they were not "political committees" under campaign finance law. The commissioners reasoned that the groups' electioneering communications--ads that mentioned a candidate, but that did not advocate for or against a candidate's election--shouldn't be considered in determining the "major purpose," and that groups' purposes over their entire history should be considered in determining their "major purpose."
Judge Cooper disagreed. He ruled first that under Buckley and its progeny, the commissioners should have considered the groups' electioneering communications in determining their "major purpose":
CREW's citations to legislative history, past FEC precedent, and court precedent certainly support the conclusion that many or even most electioneering communications indicate a campaign-related purpose. Indeed, it blinks reality to conclude that many of the ads considered by the Commissioners in this case were not designed to influence the election or defeat of a particular candidate in an ongoing race. . . . Instead, the Court will limit itself to identifying the legal error in the Commissioners' statements--that is, the erroneous understanding that the First Amendment effectively required the agency to exclude from its consideration all non-express advocacy in the context of disclosure.
Judge Cooper ruled next that the commissioners wrongly considered the groups' spending over their entire existence, instead of confining their analysis to spending within the most recent calendar year, in determining the "major purpose." He explained that a group's purpose can change over time:
The Commissioners' refusal to give any weight whatsoever to an organizations' relative spending in the most recent calendar year--particularly in the case of a fifteen-year-old organization like AJS--indicates an arbitrary "fail[ure] to consider an important aspect of the [relevant] problem."
Judge Cooper sent the case back to the FEC and ordered it "to conform with [this] declaration within 30 days." The FEC can, of course, appeal.
Monday, August 29, 2016
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review
call for papers for its 2017 Symposium:
“Dark Money and Related Issues: New Factors in the Debate on Judicial Appointment versus Election,”
to be held on February 16th and 17th, 2017.
Deadline for submissions of article proposals is Oct. 7, 2016.
Elections leave open the possibility for the corrupting influence of dark money. “Dark money” controversy figured prominently in the last Arkansas judicial elections, so much so that the Arkansas Supreme Court and General Assembly have studied the issue of campaign financing, and the Arkansas Bar Association created the Task Force on Maintaining a Fair and Impartial Judiciary, which issued a report in June recommending appointment of judges and other reforms. Judicial appointment, however, is not without its critics, who contend among other arguments that appointment is undemocratic, and that appointed judges lack authority and legitimacy and are less accountable.
The broad goal of this symposium is to debate the strengths and weaknesses of judicial election systems versus judicial appointment systems, with an eye toward the best solution for Arkansas. Topics of interest include, for example, whether an appointment process would be appropriate for all appellate judges or only Supreme Court Justices; the most effective and bipartisan types of appointment processes; issues surrounding recusal from cases involving contributors; and reforms to protect the election process from the influence of “dark money.” We anticipate panels comprising a mix of academics, judges, and legislators, both Arkansans and out-of-state speakers and contributors.
More submission details at the law review website here.
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Sixth Circuit's Mixed Ruling on First Amendment Challenges to Kentucky's Ethics Code for Judicial Elections
In its opinion in Winter v. Wolnitzek authored by Judge Jeffrey Sutton for the unanimous Sixth Circuit panel, the court considered eight provisions of the Kentucky Code of Judicial Conduct against facial and as-applied First Amendment challenges after first concluding that there was a sufficient case or controversy under Article III.
The court applies strict scrutiny to the State's efforts to regulate the campaign speech of judicial candidates under the United States Supreme Court's decision last year in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar. In Williams-Yulee, the no direct solicitation of contributions prohibition survived and a few of the provisions in Winter likewise survive. The Kentucky Supreme Court, pursuant to a certification proceeding, rendered its interpretation on three of the canons.
In succinct fashion - - - the analysis of the eight provisions is less than ten manuscript pages - - - the court determined the constitutional status of the varying prohibitions as follows:
- The campaigning clause, which prohibits a candidate for judicial office from campaigning as a member of a political organization was ruled unconstitutional as vague and overbroad. Although the Kentucky Supreme Court had clarified this provision to mean that the candidate cannot portray themselves, either directly or by implication, as "the official nominee" of the party. The court held there was too much slippage here, so that the use of a definitive article ("the Republican candidate") was not necessarily an endorsement as official nominee, especially when combined with other terms ("the moderate Republican candidate.")
- The speeches clause, which prohibited judicial candidates from making speeches for or against a political party, was unconstitutional as not narrowly tailored. The court noted that this does not prohibit a tweet for or against a political party, and distinguished a prohibition of judicial candidates from making speeches on behalf of a political organization (as the Ninth Circuit upheld).
- The contributions clause, which prohibits judicial candidates from making financial contributions to a political organization or candidate was upheld. Not withstanding the court's recognition that "money is speech" under Buckley v. Valeo. The court held that this clause "narrowly serves the Commonwealth’s compelling interest in preventing the appearance that judicial candidates are no different from other elected officials when it comes to quid pro quo politics." On this, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district judge.
- The endorsements clause, which prohibits judicial candidates from publicly endorsing or opposing candidates for public office was likewise constitutional. Again, the court stressed the quid pro quo nature of endorsements.
- The "acting as a leader" clause, which prohibits a judge from acting as a leader or holding any office in a political organization was constitutional on its face as well as-applied to the request to host a political event that is a fundraiser. The fundraiser, the court reasoned, brings the judge's impartiality into question.
- The false statements clause, prohibiting judicial candidates from making false statements with knowledge or reckless disregard of the truth is perhaps the most interesting result. The court distinguishes another Sixth Circuit case - - - Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus - - - which was not only not limited to material statements (as it was by the Kentucky Supreme Court's certification opinion), but also makes the Williams-Yulee distinction between political and judicial candidates. However, the court found that as-applied to a judicial candidate's statement to be "re-elected" when in fact she occupied the judicial position because of appointment rather than election, the provision was unconstitutional. The ban there "outstrips" the government interest and did not provide sufficient "breathing space."
- The commits clause, prohibiting judicial candidates from making pledges or promises, was remanded. This was not a provision that was certified to the Kentucky state supreme court and the Sixth Circuit panel implied that it should be. The problem is determining whether an "issue-based" commitment is inconsistent with the impartial performance of judicial duties, with the Sixth Circuit panel stating that if "Kentucky interprets “impartiality” to mean solely “impartiality as to parties,” the clause may well advance a compelling interest and do so narrowly."
The court ends its opinion, as it began, by acknowledging the "cross-currents" of First Amendment challenges to judicial, rather than political, campaigns. The court navigated surely and perhaps overly-speedily through the multiple issues landing with mixed results. It does seem that the court will be visiting this terrain again.