Thursday, November 15, 2007
Court: Provisions of Political Reform Act Unconstitutional
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Provisions in the California Political Reform Act that subject ballot proposal advocates to the same reporting and disclosure requirements as political action committees formed to promote candidates are unconstitutional, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Examining a challenge to the act by California Pro-Life Council, Inc., a unanimous panel affirmed the decision of U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell of the Eastern District of California that the state has a compelling interest in requiring disclosure of contributions to groups seeking to influence voters, and that the act’s definition of a “contribution” is narrowly tailored to that interest.
However, the panel held that less restrictive methods existed for the state to meet its informational interest with respect to multi-purpose organizations that promote or oppose ballot proposals than to subject them to the same reporting, registration, record-keeping and notice requirements as political action committees formed to nominate or elect candidates, and sent the case back to Damrell.
The Political Reform Act is intended to inform voters of the identity of individuals and organizations who expend money in support of or in opposition to ballot measures. The information collected pursuant to its disclosure requirements is publicly accessible on the secretary of state’s website.
The California Pro-Life Council brought suit alleging that particular provisions of the act violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. A non-profit corporation and the state affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee, the group describes itself as a non-partisan, non-sectarian grassroots organization with a primary purpose of educating the public about abortion, euthanasia and infanticide.
The group alleged that it would be deemed a recipient committee under the act because it had expended over $1,000 disseminating voter guides before elections in 1998 and 2000, and, as a result, it would refrain from providing similar information to the general public in the future in order to avoid the requirements imposed on a recipient committee and the penalties for failure to comply.
The matter had previously made its way to the Ninth Circuit, where the court remanded the case with instructions for the district court to consider the state’s interest and whether the regulatory scheme was tailored to meet this interest. The district court applied strict scrutiny, and concluded that the regulatory scheme was the least restrictive means available for the state to achieve its compelling interest in fully informing voters and preventing organizations from disguising their involvement in express ballot measure advocacy.
On appeal, Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson agreed that the state had a compelling interest in requiring disclosure of contributions to groups seeking to influence voters, and said that it did not have to establish functional equivalency between “contributions” and mere donations where the act only extended coverage of disclosure requirements to donations expended in an attempt to influence voters.
However, she said, the state failed to demonstrate how the additional political committee-like requirements were narrowly tailored to advance its interest.
Rawlinson said that the state’s reliance on interpretations of federal statute was mistaken because the caselaw cited applied only where an organization expressly advocated the election or defeat of candidates.
“[I]t is not at all certain that the Supreme Court would apply the same criteria to ballot measure advocacy as it did when election of candidates was involved,” she said.
She also pointed to the decision in Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc. (1986) 479 U.S. 238, where the Supreme Court noted alternate, less restrictive disclosure provisions.
“The state interest in disclosure therefore can be met in a manner less restrictive than imposing the full panoply of regulations that accompany status as a political committee,” she said, quoting Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
In a related argument, the court also held that the act was not overbroad because its presumptions were rebuttable, and that the California Pro-Life Council could not establish a violation of its associational rights where it failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that compelled disclosure of its contributors’ names would subject them to threats, harassment or reprisals.
Rawlinson was joined in her opinion by Senior Judge John T. Noonan and Judge Ronald M. Gould.
The case is California Pro-Life Council, Inc. v. Randolph, No. 05-15507.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company