Archive for the 'Issues Speech' Category

The 10th Circuit decided another disclosure case, Coalition for Secular Government v. Williams, on the mandatory reporting of “issue speech”.  It held that an individual collecting small sums to wage a campaign on ballot questions did not have to comply with registration and disclosure requirements applicable under state law to “issue committees.”  The "committee" that was really just a one-person enterprise was too "small scale,” the government's interests too limited: the cost in the particular case exceeded the benefits.

Did this result turn in any way on the nature of the advocacy – – that it was on issues, not for or against candidates?  The courts have long distinguished electoral from issue speech in determining the scope of constitutional protections.  Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1(1976); Citizens against Rent Control v. Berkeley, 454 U.S. 290 (1981); First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978).  The government's interests in the case of campaign speech are more varied and include both the prevention of corruption and its appearance, and the assistance that disclosure provides to enforcement of contribution and other regulatory limits.  The 10th Circuit found those rationales “irrelevant or inapplicable to issue committees,” and while it has upheld Colorado's issue committee disclosure in principle on the strength of another interest, the voters’ informational interest, it concluded that this interest was insufficient to sustain the law as applied to the Coalition for Secular Government.

In campaign finance law, this distinction between issues and campaign speech has led reform advocates and their allies in legislatures to insist that while the difference may matter to constitutional analysis some of the time, this cannot be not the case all of the time.  They maintain that some issue speech is often campaign speech in disguise, and the Supreme Court in McConnell upheld "electioneering communication" disclosure on the basis of its finding that some issue speech was a “sham.”  Now the courts must entertain claims in as applied to cases that the plaintiffs’ issue speech is not a sham, that it is the real thing, and that it cannot be regulated as campaign finance spending.

The case brought by the Independence Institute against the “electioneering communication” disclosure requirement enacted by McCain-Feingold could prove to be highly significant.  This is an as-applied challenge; it contests the mandatory reporting of a "pure" issue ad if, within specified days prior to an election, it refers to a public official who is also a candidate for federal office. Some believe that this claim was foreclosed by McConnell v. FEC and Citizens United.  Independence Institute disagrees, arguing that the Court has never held that issue speech loses constitutional protection against disclosure, including donor disclosure, just because it airs during an election season.

What may stand in the way are summary comments the Court has made, most notably in Citizens United, where the Justices suggested that it did not matter to the application of the electioneering communication requirement whether a communication contained the “functional equivalent of express advocacy.”  558 U.S. 310, 369.  One reading is that the Court had no patience with disclosure objections, end of story. Even a "pure" issue ad—even such an ad run with no apparent electioneering interest or motive –is subject to disclosure if it includes a reference to a public official who was a candidate.

Perhaps this is what the Court intended to say, but this interpretation puts considerable weight on general statements and very little or none at all on the line of authority established by Buckley that campaign finance law could not override the distinction in the constitutional law between campaign and issues speech.

Disclosure and a Few Hundred Dollars of Spin

January 15, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Beware the opinion on a disclosure issue that begins with the fabled Brandeis observation that “sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”  It is meant to make all that follows relatively simple. Brandeis is powerful authority, and he was not just claiming the insight for his own, but instead assigned it universal standing: disclosure “is said” to have this cleansing effect, and it is the “best” of effects.

The Fifth Circuit propelled itself down this path in a case, Justice v. Hosemann, that the Supreme Court is being asked to take up. 771 F.3d 285 (2014).  The question is whether individuals coming together to influence a ballot initiative, but spending little more than $200, can be compelled to register and report as a political committee.  Mississippi law includes this requirement and, finding that the plaintiffs had standing to bring a facial challenge, the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court and upheld the law as a constitutional measure to serve the voters’ “informational interest.”

The Court began with Brandeis and then moved quickly to suggest that others states have imposed even more onerous registration requirements for issues speech, set at still lower spending levels.  This seems to be a monumental non sequitur.  That a number of states have adopted constitutionally questionable laws does not settle, in their favor, the question of constitutionality, or logically make the case for Mississippi’s slightly more liberalized version.

But there is also the suggestion that in the Internet Age, the voters’ informational interest requires disclosure deep down, to the most modest spending of a few hundred dollars.  The Fifth Circuit cited in full this passage from National Organization for Women v. McKee:

In an age characterized by the rapid multiplication of media outlets and the rise of internet reporting, the “marketplace of ideas” has become flooded with a profusion of information and political messages. Citizens rely ever more on a message's source as a proxy for reliability and a barometer of political spin.
649 F.3d 34, 57 (1st Cir.2011).


October 8, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Fred Wertheimer remains indignant about Citizens United and he certainly comes by this view honestly.  He has been strongly for campaign finance regulation since the 1970s and had a hand in lobbying its successful passage in the first place.  It is not surprising that he is very distressed by the watered-down definition of corruption articulated by the Court first in Citizens United and then with more clarity and emphasis in the “we-mean-what-we-said” restatement in McCutcheon.

Wertheimer says in this new piece what he has said before about “legalized bribery” being the product of the Court’s fecklessness and naiveté.  This charge is familiar, and some object that it is tired and unproductive, but Wertheimer adds to this complaint another: that the decision unleashed “political chaos”.

The Question of Super PACs in the Post-Buckley World

August 3, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The court’s worst blunder, she said, was its 2010 decision in Citizens United "because of what has happened to elections in the United States and the huge amount of money it takes to run for office.”

This is what Justice Ginsburg has said, but is not clear without a bit of guesswork which she means.  But it seems to be about “what has happened to elections", including cost, and not so much how the conduct of elections translates into bad or corrupt government.  One cannot read too much into it: the comment is short, but her few words describe a problem with the electoral process.

Distortion of that process, or the interference with its ideal functioning, is a major worry for those observing money in politics, separate from any consequences for the integrity of government that the politicians, once elected, are responsible for running. This electoral corruption of elections is different from the quid pro quo corruption of government that animates the strictly constitutional and legal debate.

In Friday’s New York Times, Stuart Stevens refers to just the electoral impacts of campaign finance when discussing the effects of Super PACs in altering the character of Presidential primary competition.  A number of the now 17 candidates entering the Republican Presidential primary have jumped in with the confidence that, with a Super PAC at their side, they have the resources to hang in there for a spell. Doing well in the first primaries is no long an invariable condition of viability.  Stevens is not all that worried about it: he likes the free-for-all.  Others are less sure.

These understandings of “corruption” can be, and often are, conflated, but are very different.  The case against Super PACs as agents for electoral corruption is straightforward: a handful of individuals can float a candidacy lacking in more general public support and keep it artificially alive.  The costs increase for other candidates; debate stages are crowded with contenders who are not truly viable over the long-term; and the mechanism by which public preference is measured is skewed.

Perhaps for this reason, it goes unnoticed that arguments directly related to government corruption—and proposals for reform based on them—seem, by contrast, increasingly clouded and tenuous.