Legal Center Scores Victory in 9th Circuit Decision Upholding Washington State Disclosure Laws

Late yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its decision in Human Life of Washington v. Brumsickle, rejecting a First Amendment challenge brought by attorney James Bopp, Jr., to Washington state laws (1) requiring groups raising and spending money to influence ballot measure elections to register as political committees and disclose contributions received and expenditures made and (2) requiring others with more limited involvement in elections to disclose independent expenditures on political advertising to influence ballot measure elections. 

“Today’s ruling was a victory for citizens over special interests and shows that campaign finance regulation is still worth fighting for in the courts where, despite some recent setbacks, even the Roberts Court has continued to recognize the vital importance of disclosure to the health of our democracy,” said Paul S. Ryan, Campaign Legal Center Associate Legal Counsel.  “As more and more anonymous special interest money is flooding into the 2010 election cycle, the Ninth Circuit ruling is particularly important in light of the fact that disclosure laws are facing challenges from coast-to-coast.”

 The Campaign Legal Center filed a brief amicus curiae in the Ninth Circuit supporting the state’s defense of the disclosure laws.  As opponents of reasonable campaign finance laws attack disclosure laws from coast-to-coast, the importance of the Ninth Circuit’s decision can not be understated.

 At the heart of the case was the appropriate level of scrutiny to be applied to campaign finance disclosure laws.  In short, when a court applies “strict” scrutiny to a law, the law will frequently be deemed unconstitutional.  By contrast, when a court applies a lesser degree of scrutiny, as it did in this case, there is a much greater chance the law will be upheld if the government can prove it has a sufficiently important reason for enacting the law.  That is why the Legal Center’s brief in the court of appeals focused first on why disclosure laws should be subject to intermediate, not strict, scrutiny. Mr. Bopp had urged the court to subject Washington’s campaign finance disclosure laws to “strict” scrutiny and declare them unconstitutional.

 The Ninth Circuit’s decision embraced the Legal Center’s call for intermediate scrutiny, explaining that “[r]ecent Supreme Court decisions have eliminated the apparent confusion as to the standard of review applicable in disclosure cases[,]” and that a campaign finance disclosure law is constitutional if it is “substantially related to a sufficiently important governmental interest.”  This victory should enable those defending campaign finance disclosure laws to prevail in future cases, especially in those states within the Ninth Circuit (AK, AZ, CA, HI, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA).