In Federal Court, a Fight Over Montana Disclosure Rules

Will a Montana nonprofit group win a battle to be allowed to publish political ads without disclosing its donors? A Flathead Beacon article suggests that in a federal court case, disclosure rules may prevail.

Montanans for Community Development, the nonprofit group, initially sued in federal district court last year, and it amended its complaint in June after the Montana legislature passed into law a measure requiring that groups contributing to state elections disclose their donors (see Gavel Grab).

This month, District Judge Dana Christensen said the group would have to furnish more evidence supporting its claim it should be exempt from disclosure rules. (more…)

Group Must Reveal Donors, Maine Court Rules

Maine_quarter,_reverse_side,_2003The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled this week that the National Organization for Marriage must disclose its donors who contributed to a push to defeat the state’s law on marriage rights for same-sex couples six years ago.

“Enough is enough,” Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said, according to the Associated Press. “NOM has fought for almost six years to skirt the law and to shield the names of the out-of-state donors who bank-rolled their election efforts. The time has come for them to finally comply with state law like everyone else.”

“These are all unjust, illegitimate decisions,” NOM President Brian Brown said of the court ruling and a related ethics commission finding. “It does not bode well for the body politic when the judges and the ethics commission get to punish those they disagree with.”

Prosser Denies Recusal Was Warranted

Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Wisconsin.svgWisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser “issued a 15-page opinion explaining why he believed he could participate” in the recent campaign finance decision involving Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-recall campaign, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  Prosser joined the majority of the court in the “John Doe” case, when it ruled that no campaign finance laws were violated by the anti-recall campaign and several conservative groups that were alleged to have coordinated their activities.  The same groups spent significant sums to benefit Prosser’s supreme court campaign and the campaigns of other justices in the majority, and a special prosecutor asked Prosser and another justice to recuse themselves from the case.  Neither did so. (See Gavel Grab.)

“Prosser wrote that outside spending to help him was ‘very valuable to my campaign’ but did not rise to a level that would require him to step down from the challenge to the investigation of those groups,” according to the Journal-Sentinel.

Meanwhile, critics of the Wisconsin high court’s ruling are urging prosecutors to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the justices who benefited from outside spending, but did not recuse themselves, may have had an unconstitutional conflict of interest.   (See Gavel Grab).

Op-Ed: WI Prosecutors Should Appeal ‘John Doe’ Case to SCOTUS

In a strongly-worded column for Newsweek, Billy Corriher and Maya Efrati of Legal Progress urge prosecutors in Wisconsin’s recent “John Doe” campaign finance case to appeal the ruling of the Wisconsin_flag_mapstate Supreme Court in that case.

The ruling in the “John Doe” case  effectively halted further investigation of alleged collusion between Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-recall campaign and conservative groups, when the court decided that  there were no violations of campaign finance laws (see Gavel Grab). But Corriher and Efrati argue that because several justices on the court benefited from millions of dollars in campaign spending by those same conservative groups, “Prosecutors have a strong argument that the Wisconsin justices had an unconstitutional conflict of interest.” They argue that the justices who benefited from the spending should have recused themselves, and that since they did not, there are grounds for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The writers also suggest that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Caperton v. AT Massey Coal Co. Inc. should serve as a meaningful precedent.  “Caperton has not yet been applied by any lower court to require recusal,” they note. “But if the decision means anything, it must apply to the Wisconsin decision.”


Editorial: Campaign Finance Disclosure Law Needed in Wisconsin

In the wake of a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that some critics see as gutting the state’s campaign finance law (see Gavel Grab), a editorial calls on the state legislature to pass legislation to shine a light on political “dark money.”

The editorial criticized the ruling of a “hyperpartisan and politicized majority” of the court, and then urged the legislature to adopt legislation like that passed by some other states to require that so-called dark money groups disclose their larger donors.

Campaign Finance Disclosure Legislation Dies in Texas Legislature

iStock_000015670171Small1-1Legislation to require politically active nonprofit groups to disclose their donors was declared dead in the Texas legislature, The Texas Tribune reported.

“The Legislature gets a ‘F’ on ethics reform this session. The bills they passed largely protect the politicians and limit disclosure of information,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

The Texas Tribune subsequently reported in a different article about Gov. Greg Abbott’s news conference following the conclusion of the legislative session, “Abbott Opposes Curbs on Dark Money.” (more…)

Divided Opinion Over W.Va. Law for Nonpartisan Judicial Elections

West_Virginia_quarter,_reverse_side,_2005A state law making judicial elections in West Virginia nonpartisan will take effect June 8. Opinions of it are mixed, according to a Charleston Gazette article, with a Democratic judge commending it and a leader of the West Virginia Association for Justice panning it.

“We have written on the front of the court house ‘equal justice under law.’ The best thing anyone can do for me is to let me be in a nonpartisan election so I can always have the appearance of that,” said Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers of Putnam County. He is the county’s only elected Democrat.

Tony Majestro, president of the state Association for Justice, said, “Partisan elections aren’t the problem with our judicial elections. The problem is, is that we have, in the past, had large outside contributions that are undisclosed — at least at the time they’re made and at the time of an election.” He added, “Our campaign finance disclosure rules are so full of loopholes they are essentially useless.”

Commentary: When the Courts Shine Light on ‘Dark Money’

In some cases, the sources of what is called political “dark money” are disclosed because of action in the courts, Ciara Torres-Spelliscy writes in a commentary published at the Brennan Center for Justice website.

Among the examples cited by Torres-Spelliscy are sunlight on two dark money groups that had concealed spending sources for two California ballot initiatives; sources of money for a dark money group that were disclosed after a judge’s order in Montana; and a lawsuit settlement in New York that led a semiconductor company to agree to disclose its political spending.

Torres-Spelliscy’s views are her own. The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

Legislation Would Force Montana ‘Dark Money’ Out of Shadows

iStock_000015670171Small1-1Once Gov. Steve Bullock signs the legislation, will there be an end to the flood of “dark money” in Montana elections? That’s what Huffington Post predicts after the Montana legislature finished approving a campaign finance measure this week.

“The Montana legislature passed sweeping campaign finance legislation on Wednesday that will require the disclosure of all donors to any independent group spending money on state-level elections,” Huffington Post reported. 

“Montana elections are about to become the most transparent in the nation, requiring those trying to influence our elections to come out of the dark money shadows,” said Bullock. He is a Democrat. The legislature is dominated by Republicans.  (more…)

‘Dark Money’ Disclosure Bill Killed by Arkansas House Panel

An Arkansas House Committee has rejected legislation to require disclosure of names of individual donors to “dark money” campaign ads, like those aired in a state Supreme Court election in 2014.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America  aired some $165,000 in TV advertising that, among other things, accused candidate Tim Cullen of believing that child pornography is a victimless crime. Cullen, who lost to then-Court of Appeals Judge Robin Wynne, and his supporters said the ad distorted his views, and called it “misleading” and “beyond the pale” (see Gavel Grab).

ArkansasOnline said in reporting on the House panel vote this week that critics voiced concerns about safeguarding the privacy of political donors. It said about the LEAA, “It was never clear who donated money to the Virginia group for the Arkansas advertising.” (more…)