Gavel Grab

Illinois Campaign Disclosure Law is Upheld

A divided federal appeals court has dismissed claims by a Virginia-based group that an Illinois disclosure law violates the group’s freedom-of-speech rights.

A three-judge panel of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned down the claims by the Center for Individual Freedom, a significant spender in state judicial elections, and the panel upheld the Illinois disclosure law, according to a Reuters article.

Under the challenged statute, advocacy groups must disclose their donors, even if influencing elections is not the group’s main purpose.

According to Reuters, the Center said it had wanted to air ads in 2010 that dealt with “judicial matters” and “legal reform” issues, involving incumbents seeking re-election.

Judge David Hamilton wrote for the majority that comprehensive disclosure was “especially valuable after Citizens United,” the Supreme Court’s landmark campaign finance ruling in 2010. Judge Hamilton added, ”Amidst this cacophony of political voices — super PACs, corporations, unions, advocacy groups, and individuals, not to mention the parties and candidates themselves — campaign finance data can help busy voters sift through the information and make informed political judgments.”

Because different appeals courts have ruled differently on similar disclosure issues in the wake of  Citizens United, some observers think the issue is headed to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile a New York Times editorial, entitled “Corporate Contributions and Disclosure,” discussed a recent Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. It tossed out a challenge to a Minnesota law barring corporations from making direct contributions to state campaigns for political office.

At the same time, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, the appeals court said Minnesota’s requirements for disclosure about independent expenditures discourage ”associations, particularly small associations with limited resources, from engaging in protected political speech.” The blog post was headlined, “Eighth Circuit Blocks Minnesota Campaign Finance Law.”

“In short, the collective burdens associated with Minnesota’s independent expenditure law chill political speech,”  Chief Judge William Riley wrote for the 6-5 majority. Lawyer James Bopp Jr. had brought the challenge on behalf of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life Inc. the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, and Coastal Travel Enterprises LLC.

The Minnesota disclosure law had been hailed by some campaign finance reformers as a potential model for federal campaign finance disclosure legislation (see Gavel Grab). Minnesota’s law revealed Target Corp.’s donations totaling $150,000 to a group supporting GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer; the donations sparked controversy and a backlash in 2010.

Shortly after Citizens United was handed down, Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, emphasized the importance of campaign finance disclosure in judicial elections. “States that elect judges should immediately enact strong, real-time reporting laws, so that special-interest spending is forced into the sunlight. Voters have a right to know who is paying to put judges on their courts,” he said. To learn more about the importance of robust disclosure laws, see the JAS issues page on the topic.

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