Among its other duties, the Federal Election Commission hands out — under conditions that may involve some discretion — hall passes giving permission for political candidates to publish books without legal hassle. [Providence Journal editorial] Last fall, in a (highly recommended) Yale Law Journal piece, Stanford law professor and former appeals judge Michael McConnell proposed that the Supreme Court’s much-demonized Citizens United decision would have rested on firmer ground had the Court characterized it as a free press rather than a free speech ruling; the case arose from a complaint against the makers of a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this morning in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus that a lower court challenge can proceed against Ohio’s law purporting to ban untruthful campaign speech. [decision, SCOTUSBlog, earlier Overlawyered coverage] The ruling was widely expected: “not a single amicus brief was filed on behalf of the state of Ohio, and even liberal groups conceded that allowing the state to arbitrate truth or falsity in political campaigns was troubling. During oral argument, the Justices seemed profoundly skeptical of the law’s underlying constitutionality.” [MSNBC]
The Court did not decide the First Amendment merits. Its ruling instead turns on the cluster of issues relating to standing: was there injury in fact from the law sufficient to support a challenge even though the original complaint had been dropped? While the two wings of the Court often divide on standing, they united in taking an expansive view this time. Here and there Justice Thomas’s opinion for the 9-0 Court does brush up against the underlying First Amendment problem of the chilling of speech, which will now move front and center as the lower court again takes up the case. A passage of particular interest from pp. 15-16 (footnotes omitted):
As the Ohio Attorney General himself notes, the “practical effect” of the Ohio false statement scheme is “to permit a private complainant . . . to gain a campaign advantage without ever having to prove the falsity of a statement.” “[C]omplainants may time their submissions to achieve maximum disruption of their political opponents while calculating that an ultimate decision on the merits will be deferred until after the relevant election.” Moreover, the target of a false statement complaint may be forced to divert significant time and resources to hire legal counsel and respond to discovery requests in the crucial days leading up to an election.
Here’s the entertaining and hilarious amicus brief (what a concept) filed by my Cato colleagues Trevor Burrus, Ilya Shapiro, and Gabriel Latner on behalf of humorist and Cato fellow P.J. O’Rourke (who explains his involvement; more from Ilya and Trevor). And Ilya has a reaction to the opinion at Cato at Liberty (“Chilling speech is no laughing matter… today was a banner morning for free speech and judicial engagement.”)
George Will on why you may be out of luck if you’re the thirteenth donor in Minnesota. [syndicated/Owatonna, Minn., People's Press] In a different sense, however, campaign finance law can be seen as quite calculated as opposed to arbitrary:
Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat who represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate from 1959 to 1971, said that in Washington anything said three times is deemed a fact. It is constantly said that today’s campaign regulations are “post-Watergate” reforms. Many were indeed written after the Nixon-era scandals. But the push for more government regulation of political speech began because Democrats were dismayed by what McCarthy accomplished [in challenging incumbent President Lyndon Johnson] in 1968.
The syndicated columnist praises Judge Rudolph Randa’s
remarkably emphatic ruling against an especially egregious example of Democrats using government power to suppress conservatives’ political speech.
Wisconsin’s sordid episode began, appropriately, with a sound of tyranny — fists pounding on the doors of private citizens in pre-dawn raids. While sheriff’s deputies used floodlights to illuminate the citizens’ homes, armed raiders seized documents, computers, cellphones and other devices.
Earlier here, here, etc.
And two Republican Wisconsin lawmakers are calling for a thorough review into the activities of the state Government Accountability Board, which “oversees Wisconsin campaign and election laws,” and whose contracted investigator, Dean Nickel, is reported to have played a role in setting in motion the process which resulted in the investigation of dozens of conservative organizations. [M.D. Kittle, Wisconsin Reporter/Watchdog.org] More: Milwaukee Federalist Society chapter roundup of coverage.
A federal judge has quashed the stunningly abusive “John Doe” proceedings that had resulted in midnight raids on the homes of leading conservative activists across the state. I’ve got more in a new Cato post; fuller coverage at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Watchdog.org (and series), and the decision itself is here. Earlier coverage here, here, and here. I conclude:
The citizens of Wisconsin must now demand a full accounting of how these raids could have happened. They should also insist on changes in state law, in particular the “John Doe” law, aimed at ensuring that nothing like them ever happens again.
Update: Seventh Circuit panel stays ruling pending appeal.
Laws requiring campaign donation disclosure can reinforce conformist pressures, notes my colleague Ilya Shapiro on the episode of the tech CEO who stepped down after an outcry over his donation to California’s Prop 8 campaign a few years ago. [Forbes] On the wider significance of the episode (not mostly one of law or regulation, since the government did not and in my view should not get involved either way), I recommend Conor Friedersdorf’s careful analysis in the Atlantic.
“…Yet”. Daniel Fisher explains yesterday’s 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. FEC, which may be more significant as a clue to the direction of future Court thinking on campaign finance and the First Amendment as for its actual direct effect. Cato submitted an amicus brief on the side that prevailed, and my colleagues Trevor Burrus and Ilya Shapiro have flash reactions (earlier). More: Ilya Shapiro now has a longer treatment out at SCOTUSBlog.
Trevor Burrus on the serious side of the case that elicited Cato’s humorous amicus brief the other day [Forbes]:
Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus… will be argued [before the Supreme Court] in April. The case is a challenge to Ohio’s bizarre statute prohibiting knowingly or recklessly making “false” statements about a political candidate or ballot initiative. In other words, the Ohio Election Commission (OEC) essentially runs a ministry of truth to which any citizen can submit a complaint. Amazingly, twenty other states have such laws.
Laws against lying in political speech are not administered by disinterested truth seekers, but by people with their own political convictions. They chill large amounts of truthful speech and deprive the public of hearing a robust debate on the issues. And, as we will see, they are used by political opponents to turn campaigning into litigation.
It’s actually on a serious subject: can a state (Ohio) purport to ban false, exaggerated or “truthy” speech about candidates, or does that impermissibly chill speech protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment? My colleagues Ilya Shapiro, Trevor Burrus and Gabriel Latner co-authored it on behalf of political humorist/Cato fellow P.J. O’Rourke in the pending SCOTUS case of Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. Read it here, alongside Ilya Shapiro’s summary, and here’s David Lat of Above the Law calling it the “Best Amicus Brief Ever.“
Details are all over; D’Souza, a well-known conservative commentator, is the author of a book criticizing President Obama in particularly harsh terms. Here’s what happened after a big-league trial lawyer got caught donating in others’ names to John Edwards in 2004 (“slap on wrist“). More: Ken White, Popehat; Ann Althouse.
Further: Alison Frankel at Reuters on how laundering/straw donor charges are brought “surprisingly frequently” with less than clear patterns of who gets off with civil settlements and who gets indicted (& thanks for cite).
And more: I didn’t do as good a job of explaining the link to our 2006 post as I might, and some readers have misinterpreted it. As reported there, the John Edwards campaign paid only a $9,500 civil fine for accepting the illegal contributions. The lawyer and law firm that arranged the donations paid a larger fine of $50,000, several times the size of the offending contributions, in a civil (not criminal) penalty.
“… is to allow citizens to monitor government, not to allow government to monitor citizens.” — Center for Competitive Politics on Sen. Dick Durbin’s demand that private donors provide information about their involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization for state legislators, and with the issue of “stand your ground” self-defense law.
Eugene Volokh in a Federalist Society video on campaign regulation and the First Amendment. A dissent: Scott Greenfield.
P.S. Beware of setting up a state-level group to promote controversial views on issues, even if promoting candidates is not your primary purpose [Adler on cert petition in Corsi v. Ohio Elections Commission]