Friday, September 24, 2021

Supreme Court of Hawaii upholds Subpoenas to Environmental Advocacy Nonprofit

Hawaii Supreme Court: "KAHEA's advocacy could be totally legal and still jeopardize its eligibility for 501(c)(3) status" under the public policy exception.

Interesting, but very problematic, decision out of the Supreme Court of Hawai'i largely upholding the Attorney General's subpoena of bank records from a charity. image from kahea.org KAHEA: The Hawai‘ian Environmental Alliance, "advocate[s] for the proper stewardship of our resources and for social responsibility by promoting cultural understanding and environmental justice." KAHEA created the "Aloha ‘Āina Support Fund" which “prioritizes frontline logistical support for non-violent direct actions taken to protect Mauna Kea from further industrial development.” After around 30 protesters apparently affiliated in some way with KAHEA (the court doesn't discuss except to emphasize that the Fund paid for bail for some of the protesters) blocked a road to a construction site, the Attorney General issued sweeping subpoenas of bank records from the organization. The Court suggests that AG's true motive seems to be dislike for KAHEA's advocacy agenda. KAHEA was able to get the scope of the subpoenas narrowed at both the trial level and in the Supreme Court on the grounds that they were unreasonable, but Court upheld the demand for information about how expenditures made by the Aloha ‘Āina Support Fund.

The Supreme Court' rejects KAHEA's claim that the subpoena was improperly retaliatory for KAHEA's advocacy activities. The Court seems to agree that a subpoena is an adverse action that triggers First Amendment:

KAHEA's opposition to development on Mauna Kea falls squarely within the heartland of the First Amendment's protections. We also agree with KAHEA that the prospect of an administrative subpoena seeking extensive banking records is an adverse action that would chill a person of ordinary firmness from exercising First Amendment rights.
But, the Court concludes, the AG's subpoena is okay because "The State AG's investigation is premised on the notion that KAHEA's financial support for direct action opposing development on Mauna Kea may disqualify it from 501(c)(3) status."
The Court explains:

The State AG's investigation is premised on the notion that KAHEA's financial support for direct action opposing development on Mauna Kea may disqualify it from 501(c)(3) status. Nothing about this premise contradicts or runs counter to First Amendment principles.The federal tax exemption for charitable organizations is effectively a taxpayer-funded subsidy for organizations that serve some public benefit. As the Supreme Court explained in Bob Jones Univ. v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983):

When the Government grants exemptions or allows deductions all taxpayers are affected; the very fact of the exemption or deduction for the donor means that other taxpayers can be said to be indirect and vicarious “donors.” Charitable exemptions are justified on the basis that the exempt entity confers a public benefit ....

Id. at 591. One corollary of the “public benefit principle” is that to qualify for the exemption, an organization must have a charitable purpose “ ‘consistent with local laws and public policy’.”

The State AG's characterization of its investigation as probing whether KAHEA has “an illegal purpose” is thus misleading because its use of the word “illegal” suggests as a necessary premise some unlawfulness on KAHEA's part. To the contrary, KAHEA's advocacy could be totally legal and still jeopardize its eligibility for 501(c)(3) status.

The State AG has represented that it is not investigating whether KAHEA has done anything illegal; it is investigating whether KAHEA serves a public benefit such that all U.S. taxpayers – a group that may include supporters of development on Mauna Kea – ought to be KAHEA's “vicarious donors.” KAHEA could have an “illegal purpose” without having done anything illegal. As such – and given IRS Revenue Ruling 75-384 and the record here – the notion that KAHEA's support for “direct action” on Mauna Kea might impact its eligibility for § 501(c)(3) status is not so unsound that it betrays retaliatory animus.

 
 
The Court's reasoning makes quite a few missteps, but I want to focus on its view that KAHEA has federal tax exempt status, "all U.S. taxpayers – a group that may include supporters of development on Mauna Kea – [are] KAHEA's 'vicarious donors,'" which in turn gives the state AG latitude to investigate whether its advocacy is actually serving the public. (I'm setting aside the question whether federal tax-exemption is a valid basis for the state to exercise investigative authority.)
 
This is potentially very dangerous. The Court comes close to suggesting that the AG is empowered to assess whether KAHEA's advocacy goals serve the public benefit (which, as the Court notes, is likely the true motive behind the case). While this type of viewpoint discrimination is allowed in other nations (denying Greenpeace charitable status because its advocacy for the environment, if successful, would harm industry and thus not benefit the public), that isn't the American approach. I'll give the Court the benefit of the doubt and assume that isn't what it is saying. A more reasonable, but still problematic, interpretation of the Court's reasoning is that the AG is allowed to question the organization's methods of advocacy: the support of Direct Action. (There was no claim that KAHEA ran afoul of federal rules on lobbying and political activities). This too is flawed.
 
While an organization that engages in or plans significant illegal activities may lose its exempt status, the state AG assured the court that "it is not investigating whether KAHEA has done anything illegal." The Court concludes that "KAHEA's advocacy could be totally legal and still jeopardize its eligibility for 501(c)(3) status." How? The Court primarily relies on an IRS revenue ruling from 1975 that denied tax-exemption to an Antiwar Protest Organization "whose primary activity is the sponsoring of antiwar protest demonstrations in which demonstrators are urged to commit violations of local ordinances and breaches of public order." That is nothing like KAHEA. Unlike the organization denied exempt status, KAHEA's primary purpose is not to sponsor or organize criminal acts. Even the AG conceded that KAHEA wasn't responsible for any violations of criminal law. Instead, the connection between the KAHEA and the protesters seems to rest on the Fund's payment for attorney representation and bail for people charged with a crime -- hardly a basis to call into question KAHEA's tax-exempt status, the supposed rationale for the subpoena. The debate over the scope of the public policy exception remains active, and the Hawaii Supreme Court's muddled reasoning doesn't do much to advance the ball.
 
On the bright side, the Hawai'i Supreme Court seems willing to scrutinize AG subpoenas of nonprofits when First Amendment values are at stake. But the decision rests on shaky legal grounds, and could be read to give Attorneys General problematic license to use the subpoena power to chill nonprofits' organizing and protest efforts.
 
@JosephWMead
jeopardize

In re KAHEA, No. SCAP-20-0000110, 2021 WL 4271347, at *9 (Haw. Sept. 21, 2021)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/nonprofit/2021/09/supreme-court-of-hawaii-upholds-subpoenas-to-environmental-advocacy-nonprofit.html

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