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.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Justice Ginsburg's comments about presidential candidate Donald Trump have caused controversy and invited comparisons with the late Justice Scalia's remarks and relationship with a sitting Vice President and his refusal to recuse himself from a case involving the VP which Scalia himself described as "heroic" in an interview. (Amy Howe for SCOTUSBlog has a great round-up of commentary on the controversy; Howard Bashman also has a good list).
But interestingly, Justice Scalia - - - as well as Justice Kennedy - - - broached the possibility of a Donald Trump presidential candidacy more than 25 years ago, in the 1989 oral arguments in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The Court in Austin upheld the constitutionality of a Michigan statute that prohibited corporations, excluding media corporations, from using general treasury funds for independent expenditures in connection with state candidate elections, rejecting both First Amendment and Equal Protection claims, and recognizing a government interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption in the political arena from large corporate treasuries. Both Scalia and Kennedy dissented. Twenty years later, the Court, 5-4, with Kennedy authoring the opinion and Scalia joining, overruled Austin in the controversial 2010 Citizens United v. FEC.
Near the beginning of the Austin oral arguments, Justice Scalia uses Donald Trump, alluding to the wealth that would allow him to self-finance a campaign, as a comparison to corporate financing:
General Caruso, why is there a greater risk to the political process from an independent political expenditure by a family corporation, closely held corporation, eight family members, and they want to spend the corporation's money for a particular candidate whom they think will favor their business.
That... that is prohibited by this.
But if Donald Trump wants to come in and spend as much money as he likes, that is perfectly all right.
Why wouldn't it make much more sense, if you are worried about the problem, to establish an amount of money as the criterion?
A few moments later, Kennedy follows:
Then it... it seems to me that Justice Scalia's question indicates that you have to give a specific reason why a corporation of that type presents more [of] a danger than Donald Trump, and I didn't really hear the answer to that question.
Louis J. Caruso: Well, the thing of it is--
Anthony M. Kennedy: And it has to be answered in the terms of a compelling interest that is narrowly tailored.
Did Justice Kennedy actually call Donald Trump a "danger" in 1989?
h/t Navid Khazanei
July 14, 2016 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, First Amendment, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in Holmes v. FEC that a lower court erred in not certifying a challenge to federal base contribution limits to the en banc D.C. Circuit.
The ruling means that the full D.C. Circuit will take up the question whether federal base contribution limits violate the First Amendment.
The case arose when the plaintiffs challenged the federal base contribution limit of $2,600 "per election" as violating free speech. They wanted to contribute $5,200 to a congressional candidate in the general election, but the "per election" limit prohibited this. (They could have contributed $2,600 in the primary, then another $2,600 in the general, but they didn't want to contribute in the primary.) They argued that language in the plurality opinion in McCutcheon supported their claim: "Congress's selection of a $5,200 base limit [the combined limit for a primary and general election, according to the plaintiffs] indicates its belief that contributions of that amount or less do not create a cognizable risk of corruption."
The district court declined to certify the question to the D.C. Circuit, because the plaintiffs' argument contradicted "settled law," that is, Supreme Court precedent.
The D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said,
We therefore do not think a district court may decline to certify a constitutional question simply because the plaintiff is arguing against Supreme Court precedent so long as the plaintiff mounts a non-frivolous argument in favor of overturning that precedent. That the plaintiff will be fighting a losing battle in the lower courts does not necessarily make the question "obviously frivolous," or "wholly insubstantial," or "obviously without merit." The plaintiff has to raise the question to ensure that it is preserved for Supreme Court review. And certifying the question fulfills Section 30110's evident purpose of accelerating potential Supreme Court review.
At the same time, the court declined to order certification for a related Fifth Amendment claim against base limits. The court said that this claim was based on regulations, not the Act, and therefore not subject to certification.
Thursday, March 17, 2016
Check out Prof. Colin Starger's (U. Balt., U. Balt. Sup. Ct. Mapping Project) nifty new online Supreme Court citation network tool. This site, which Starger produced in collaboration with Free Law Project, allows you to map Supreme Court case citations against Spaeth data on the decision direction (liberal-conservative) in The Supreme Court Database, with links to the decisions and a ton more information. Starger already posted a bevy of maps, but you can create your own, too. Here's a sample, mapping from Buckley to McCutcheon:
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
The Tenth Circuit ruled today in Coalition for Secular Government v. Williams that burdensome state disclosure requirements as applied to a small-scale issue-advocacy nonprofit violate the First Amendment. The ruling means that Colorado's disclosure requirements cannot apply against the Coalition for Secular Government's small-scale advocacy against a statewide "personhood" ballot initiative in the 2014 general election.
The Coalition for Secular Government is a small outfit (one person) that devotes itself to printing and distributing material against a proposed "personhood" amendment in Colorado each time it comes up for a vote--the last in 2014. Because the Coalition collects donations to support its operations, the state constitution and implementing laws and regulations require the Coalition to register as an "issue committee" and to disclose information about contributors. These turn out to be quite a hassle, especially for a small group, so the Coalition sued, arguing that they violate the First Amendment.
The Tenth Circuit agreed. The court applied "exacting scrutiny" and concluded that "the minimal informational interest [in disclosure] cannot justify the associated substantial burdens [of compliance]." The court noted that the small-scale nature of the Coalition had an impact on both sides of the balance. As to the informational interest, "the strength of the public's interest in issue-committee disclosure depends, in part, on how much money the issue committee has raised or spent," and the informational interest in the Coalition's spending (about $3,500) was nothing like the informational interest in a group that spent, say, $10 million. As to the burden, the court noted that a small-scale organization like the Coalition faces greater challenges in compliance than a large-scale outfit.
At the same time, the court declined to say whether the state constitutional threshold for issue-committee reporting (a mere $200) constituted a facial violation of the First Amendment. As a result, that threshold is still on the books.
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in Independence Institute v. FEC that a nonprofit organization's First Amendment challenge to federal electioneering disclosure requirements must go to a three-judge court (and not be dismissed). The ruling keeps alive the nonprofit's challenge to disclosure requirements for its "electioneering communication" under the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act--even if its constitutional arguments seem, well, weak.
Independence Institute, a 501(c)(3), sought to run a radio ad in favor of a federal statute that would reform federal sentencing, and to encourage citizens to express their support for the law to Colorado's Senator Mark Udall. But Udall was running for re-election at the time, so the radio spot would qualify as an electioneering communication under BCRA. That would trigger disclosure requirements, forcing Independence Institute to disclose its donors to the FEC.
Independence Institute complained, arguing that forced disclosure violated the First Amendment, and sought review by a three-judge court. The district judge denied the request, concluding that the plaintiff's claims were foreclosed by McConnell v. FEC and Citizens United, both of which upheld disclosure requirements against a facial challenge and against one particular as-applied challenge.
A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said that Independence Institute's arguments passed the low standard the Court recently set in Shapiro v. McManus--denying a three-judge court only when a claim is "essentially fictitious, wholly insubstantial, obviously frivolous, and obviously without merit." In particular, Independence Institute argued that its as-applied claim against the disclosure requirement was different than the as-applied claim that the Court rejected in Citizens United, because Citizens United was a 501(c)(4) organization (not a (c)(3), like Independence), and that Citizens United therefore had a lesser interest in privacy, and that the government had a greater interest in publicly identifying Citizens United's donors. (Independence also argued that the First Amendment bars compelled disclosure unless the electioneering communication is unambiguously campaign-related (not an issue ad, as here). The court didn't address this.)
That seems pretty weak, but not "essentially fictitious, wholly insubstantial, obviously frivolous, and obviously without merit," according to the court.
Judge Wilkins dissented, arguing that the issue's been settled by the Court.
The ruling sends the case to a three-judge court for further proceedings. While this isn't a ruling on the merits--and seems like a poor test case to challenge disclosure requirements--the ruling nevertheless keeps the case alive.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
In a relatively brief opinion in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, a panel of the Sixth Circuit found that Ohio's false campaign statute, Ohio Rev. Code § 3517.21(B)(9), violates the First Amendment.
Recall that the Sixth Circuit had previously decided that the constitutional challenge was not ripe for review, but that the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed in June 2014. On remand, District Judge Timothy Black concluded that the statute violated the First Amendment.
The Sixth Circuit panel reasoned that any Sixth Circuit precedent supporting the view that falsehoods were categorically excluded from the First Amendment had been abrogated by United States v. Alvarez, (the "stolen valor" case). Instead, the panel found that the Ohio law both targeted core speech and was a content-based regulation, and thus strict scrutiny was applicable. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that
Ohio’s interests in preserving the integrity of its elections, protecting “voters from confusion and undue influence,” and “ensuring that an individual’s right to vote is not undermined by fraud in the election process” are compelling.
However, the means chosen were not narrowly tailored:
in their (1) timing, (2) lack of a screening process for frivolous complaints, (3) application to non-material statements, (4) application to commercial intermediaries, and (5) over-inclusiveness and under-inclusiveness.
Additionally, the Sixth Circuit noted:
Ohio’s political false-statements laws have similar features to another Ohio election law that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional. In McIntyre [v. Ohio Elections Committee (1995)] , the Supreme Court struck down Ohio’s election law prohibiting anonymous leafleting because its prohibitions included non-material statements that were “not even arguably false or misleading,” made by candidates, campaign supporters, and “individuals acting independently and using only their own modest resources,” whether made “on the eve of an election, when the opportunity for reply is limited,” or months in advance. Ohio’s political false-statements laws have all of the same flaws. Such glaring oversteps are not narrowly tailored to preserve fair elections.
The use of McIntyre is an interesting one because the "right to be anonymous" recognized in McIntyre seemed to rest in part on the government interest in ensuring truthfulness and cited the Ohio campaign falsehoods law in support.
Given that the court did recognize as compelling the government's interests in addressing lies in campaigns, is there any possibility that a government could craft a narrowly tailored regulation? It seems doubtful.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Check out this new Brennan Center report on the recent spate of sharply divided Supreme Court rulings that opened the spigot on money in politics.
In Five to Four, Brennan Center attorneys Lawrence Norden, Brent Ferguson, and Douglas Keith show how "six closely divided Supreme Court decisions in the last decade contributed to some of the most disturbing trends in American elections"--things like super PACs, dark money, unlimited corporate and union spending, and radically increased total contributions to candidates and parties. (Each of these gets its own chapter.)
Four of the nine justices strongly disagreed with these decisions, and if one more justice had joined them, our ability to regulate big money in politics, and to give ordinary Americans more of a voice in the political process, would be very different today.
In other words, the last few years of campaign financing are not "normal," or "inevitable," or "just the way things are." To the contrary, in the modern era, they are the aberrant result of a single swing vote on the Supreme Court, which upended decades of carefully crafted campaign finance laws, and they can be reversed.
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
The California Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the California legislature had authority to put on the general election ballot the nonbinding, advisory question whether Congress should propose, and the legislature ratify, a federal constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.
The court said that the measure fell within the state legislative authority:
We conclude: (1) as a matter of state law, the Legislature has authority to conduct investigations by reasonable means to inform the exercise of its other powers; (2) among those other powers are the power to petition for national constitutional conventions, ratify federal constitutional amendments, and call on Congress and other states to exercise their own federal article V powers; (3) although neither constitutional text nor judicial precedent provide definitive answers to the question, long-standing historical practice among the states demonstrates a common understanding that legislatures may formally consult with and seek nonbinding input from their constituents on matters relevant to the federal constitutional amendment process; (4) nothing in the state Constitution prohibits the use of advisory questions to inform the Legislature's exercise of its article V-related powers; and (5) applying deferential review, Proposition 49 is reasonably related to the exercise of those powers and thus constitutional.
Still, there are no actual plans to put the measure on the 2016 ballot--at least not yet. The legislature previously directed that the measure go on the 2014 ballot; that decision was before the court. Now that 2014 is over, you might think the case was moot. But if so, you'd be wrong: the court said it should address the question, notwithstanding the lack of plans to put the measure on the ballot, because the legislature might direct that the measure go on a future ballot (apparently in the spirit of capable-of-repetition-but-evading-review).
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.