Rio Grande Foundation v. City of Santa Fe

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At a Glance

CLC represents Santa Fe in defending its political disclosure law, which protects voters’ right to know who is behind efforts to influence their votes. 

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About this Case

Like many other states and municipalities, Santa Fe requires basic disclosure from those spending money to support or oppose ballot measures in local elections, so as to enable the voting public to assess and understand the interests vying for their votes. The challenged disclosure provision requires “event-driven” reporting: whenever a person or entity spends $250 or more to support or oppose a ballot proposition, the person is required to disclose that spending, as well as any donors who contributed for the purpose of funding it.  

The plaintiff in the case is the Rio Grande Foundation (RGF), an Albuquerque-based nonprofit corporation that regularly participates in legislative and policy advocacy in New Mexico. In April 2017, one month before Santa Feans would go to the polls to vote on a “soda tax” proposition, RGF announced that it was launching a campaign to defeat the measure. This “No Way Santa Fe” initiative would include a $7,500 campaign video and website urging voters to reject the proposal, as well as Facebook advertisements promoting the video and $1,500 on express advocacy mailers.

When RGF refused to file a campaign report disclosing the in-kind contributions and expenditures related to its “No Way Santa Fe” initiative, a local citizen filed a complaint alleging that RGF had violated the disclosure ordinance. The City’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board (ECRB) agreed and ordered RGF to file a one-time, six-page campaign report, which revealed that the No Way Santa Fe video and website were produced and contributed by an out-of-state group called the Interstate Policy Alliance, and disclosed one other person who contributed $250 toward the effort. The ECRB took no further action against RGF. No penalties or fines were assessed.

Shortly thereafter, RGF filed suit against the City of Santa Fe and the ECRB, challenging the disclosure ordinance under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article II, § 17 of the New Mexico Constitution.

What’s at Stake?

Disclosure of the sources of funding for election-related speech has been a feature of American campaign finance law for more than a century, and the Supreme Court has consistently upheld such laws against constitutional challenge. As eight Justices emphasized in Citizens United, disclosure “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly voiced its approval of disclosure laws—including in the ballot measure context—because transparency permits robust debate on political issues while arming voters with the information necessary “to evaluate the arguments to which they are being subjected.”

Independent spending by non-committee groups plays an growing role in Santa Fe elections, and Santa Fe voters strongly favor the existence of disclosure and identification requirements connected with this political advertising. The law being challenged was created to shine a light on the influx of dark money that continues to plague campaigns across the country. As the Santa Fe City Council emphasized in its justification for the Code’s disclosure provisions, “the public’s right to know how political campaigns are financed far outweighs any right that this matter remain secret and private.”

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