It’s a fitting subject for Independence Day – whether the U.S. Supreme Court struck a blow at privacy and free speech last week or undermined California’s justifiable efforts to demand that a controversial (and conservative) political organization reveal its donors.
After many battles in the lower courts, the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 margin reflecting its ideological divide, sided with Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit organization founded by industrialists David and Charles Koch, and other nonprofit organizations.
Federal law requires these organizations to file tax returns and list their major donors, but California law only requires that they provide copies of their tax returns to the state Department of Justice, which oversees the groups. charitable.
However, ten years ago, the California Department of Justice began requiring organizations to disclose their donors as well. Americans for Prosperity sued former attorney general (and now vice president) Kamala Harris, alleging that the requested documents violated the constitutional rights of their donors and, if disclosed publicly, would subject them to harassment.
Supporters of the disclosure requirement countered that the information was needed to fight fraud and the flow of so-called “black money” into political campaigns, especially after the Court’s Citizens United ruling. supreme. The state insisted the information would be kept confidential, but there were actually a few incidents in which it was leaked.
Americans for Prosperity tended to win in lower federal courts, but lose in the 9th District Court of Appeals, known for its liberal leanings. Finally, the case made it to the Supreme Court, where the Tories dominate by a 6-3 margin, and so the court was divided on the case in last Thursday’s ruling.
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said the California regulations violated First Amendment rights of donors and did not serve a narrowly tailored government interest.
“The result,” Roberts wrote, “is that California attracts sensitive donor information each year from tens of thousands of charities, even though that information will only become relevant in a small number of cases involving complaints. filed. “
The court’s three liberal judges saw the opposite, with Judge Sonia Sotomayor writing their dissent and claiming that the ruling would allow more money donated anonymously to influence campaigns and poses a “significant risk of overthrowing the regimes of disclosure that should be constitutional “.
This is the latest skirmish in an old debate over whether regulating political activity with campaign contributions and spending limits, banning certain types of political spending, disclosure laws and other rules are necessary to prevent corruption or if it violates the constitutional rights of freedom of expression.
Regulations at all levels of government are drafted and enforced by politicians, who have vested interests in how they affect political campaigns. In the Americans for Prosperity case, three Democratic attorneys general – Harris, Xavier Becerra and now Rob Bonta – clearly and publicly sought information that other Democrats hoped to reduce the influence of the libertarian Koch brothers.
Thanks to Americans for Prosperity and their other organizations, the Kochs have been quite successful, particularly at the state level (but not in California) in electing Republican lawmakers and thereby influencing the 10-year redistribution of congressional districts to help the GOP to win and keep seats.
Democratic politicians and their allies, especially the unions, clearly don’t like the Kochs’ success. However, by researching the names of major nonprofit donors, California attorneys general have also placed charges on purely charitable groups that could hamper their ability to attract donors, and there is hardly any proof that the requirement really played an important role in eradicating fraud.
Dan Walters has been a journalist for almost 60 years, spending most of those years working for California newspapers. He has written over 9,000 columns on California and its politics, and his column has appeared in many other California newspapers. He currently writes for CalMatters.org a non-profit, non-partisan media company explaining California politics and politics.