Three-Judge Panel Disregards Precedent to Gut Wisconsin Political Disclosure Laws


On May 14, 2014, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated or narrowed multiple provisions of Wisconsin’s political disclosure law in Wisconsin Right to Life v. Deininger.

More specifically, the three-judge panel held that Wisconsin’s disclosure requirements could only extend to express advocacy and the functional equivalent of express advocacy, disregarding that the Supreme Court in Citizens United stated unequivocally that it “rejected the contention” that disclosure “must be limited to speech that is the functional equivalent of express advocacy.”  The three-judge panel also struck down Wisconsin’s “PAC-like” disclosure requirements as applied to groups making independent expenditures that did not have express election advocacy as their major purpose.  Both holdings run contrary to a 2012 decision by a different panel of the Seventh Circuit in Center for Individual Freedom v. Madigan, which upheld comparable provisions of Illinois’ campaign finance law.

“The result of this decision is to leave virtually no reporting requirements for independent spending on the books for certain organizations.  A group can pour millions of dollars into advertising in Wisconsin elections without having to make full disclosure to the public, provided that it claims its ‘major purpose’ does not relate to candidate elections,” Legal Center Senior Counsel Tara Malloy stated.  “The reasoning of the decision is also slipshod, selectively distorting parts of controlling Supreme Court precedent, as well as contradicting the recent precedent of its own Circuit.  This panel has apparently forgotten that the High Court has repeatedly found that there is a vital public interest in ensuring that voters receive information about the independent advertising campaigns that bombard them in the election season so that they can make meaningful decisions at the polls.”

To read the amicus brief the Legal Center filed on November 9, 2012, defending the challenged provisions of Wisconsin law, click here.