The Guardian Interview With Paul S. Ryan Senior Counsel, Campaign Legal Center

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The Legal Center’s Paul S. Ryan was interviewed by Wesley Bizzell in the October 16, 2012 issue of COGEL’s The Guardian. The Senior Counsel answered questions ranging from how he became involved in campaign finance law to what to do when Jim Bopp sues you.

Beyond the Headlines, a regular Guardian feature, brings you interviews with the lawyers and other professionals who are on-the-ground litigating campaign finance, lobbying, ethics, elections, and FOIA issues.

For this installment, we interview Paul S. Ryan, Senior Counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. Mr. Ryan litigates campaign finance issues before Federal and state courts and testifies before Congress, state and municipal legislative bodies and ethics agencies. Prior to joining the Campaign Legal Center in 2004, Mr. Ryan was the Political Reform Project Director at the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

1. Can you tell us a little about the Campaign Legal Center, its history, and how it is involved in campaign finance and other political law issues?

The Campaign Legal Center is a non-partisan, non-profit organization established in 2002 with a mission to enact, defend, and enforce campaign finance, election, and ethics laws. With a small, veteran staff of experts, we represent the public interest in legislative, administrative and legal proceedings and shape our nation’s policy debate about money in politics and the prevention of governmental corruption. We do this through: (1) litigation (amicus briefs, counsel to a party, and offering legal counsel to municipal and state government attorneys and officials); (2) participation in FEC, IRS, FCC and other governmental agency proceedings; (3) helping legislators draft effective and constitutional bills; and (4) public and press outreach and education.

2. You have a long personal history of litigating in the campaign finance arena. How did you first become involved in campaign finance issues?

During my late teens through my mid-twenties, I did a lot of community organizing work around political issues and also some candidate campaign volunteer work. Through this issue advocacy and candidate campaign work, I was first exposed to the rules regarding money in politics—or lack thereof—and was profoundly troubled by the role money plays in shaping elections and generating public policy. The ability of wealthy individuals and groups to wield significantly more political influence than people of average or modest means struck me as plutocratic and fundamentally anti-democratic.

While living in Missoula, Montana, in the mid-90s, I began looking for a pro bonolawyer to help me draft a campaign finance reform ordinance for the City of Missoula, which I hoped to convince the city to enact. I was only able to find one attorney in the state knowledgeable about campaign finance law and sympathetic to my reform aspirations; he was an attorney in private practice too busy at the time to help me out. I figured that I likely wasn’t the only community activist interested in campaign finance reform who was unable to find legal assistance, so I decided to become an attorney who would provide such assistance. Years earlier, I had dropped out of school without finishing my undergraduate degree, so I returned to school at the University of Montana and finished my undergraduate degree and continued on to law school at UCLA, with the intention of becoming an attorney skilled in campaign finance reform and other election law matters who would provide free legal services to community activists and public officials interested in election reform. The rest is history.

3. Can you tell us a little about the first campaign finance case you litigated? What was the issue, and what was the outcome?

During my first three years following law school, I was working at the policy “think tank” Center for Governmental Studies and was not litigating. One of my principal motivations for moving to the Campaign Legal Center in 2004 was to get some exposure to and experience with litigation.

If I’m remembering correctly, the first case I was involved in at the Campaign Legal Center was Kean for Congress Committee v. FEC. We represented Republican Congressional candidate Thomas H. Kean, Jr.’s, principal campaign committee in a suit challenging the FEC’s dismissal of the Kean Committee’s complaint against a group called Council for Responsible Government (CRG).

The Kean Committee had alleged in its complaint to the FEC that CRG had violated federal campaign finance law by failing to register with the FEC as a political committee, and failing to abide by contribution restrictions and disclosure requirements, when it raised money and paid for ads opposing Mr. Kean in his 2000 Congressional campaign. The FEC challenged the Kean Committee’s standing and filed both a motion to dismiss our case and a motion for summary judgment. We prevailed on both motions, which prompted the FEC to pursue and enforcement action against CRG, conclude that CRG had violated multiple federal campaign finance laws, and enter a settlement agreement with CRG.

4. How many campaign finance cases have you been involved in through your work at the Center? Of those cases, which one was the most memorable, and which one, in your view, was the most important from either a public policy or precedential standpoint?

I’ve lost count, but I’d estimate that the Campaign Legal Center participates in 10-12 cases per year and I’ve been working at the Center for eight years, so I’d put the number somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 cases. The most memorable and important case that I’ve worked on is probably Citizens United. On the case’s first trip to the Supreme Court, the Legal Center was part of the legal team representing Senators McCain and Feingold and former Representatives Shays and Meehan as amici curiae. On the case’s second trip to the Supreme Court, we represented seven nonprofit public interest organizations as amici curiae. Election lawyers will be discussing Citizens United for many years to come.

5. The Citizens United and Speech Now cases have garnered significant attention by the media and policymakers. Other than those two cases, what recent cases have had the most significant impact on the state of campaign finance law but are being overlooked by legislators and the media?

While Citizens United is most widely recognized as a case about corporate political expenditure restrictions, the case also entailed a challenge to federal law “electioneering communication” disclosure requirements, which the Court upheld by an 8-1 majority. And about six months after the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, the Court decided Doe v. Reed, in which the Court again upheld a political disclosure law by an 8-1 majority. These disclosure decisions are important because the front line of battle in campaign finance litigation now seems to be on the issue of disclosure. The Supreme Court in 2010 decided the “facial” challenge in Doe v. Reed, but the case is back before the Ninth Circuit now on an “as applied” challenge; we filed an amicus brief in the case in March.

CLC is also currently involved in disclosure challenges in two other Ninth Circuit cases, as well as disclosure challenges in the Eighth and Eleventh Circuits. The fact that the Supreme Court has strongly and consistently supported disclosure laws has not deterred opponents of electoral transparency from challenging disclosure laws through litigation around the nation. With potentially hundreds of millions of dollars from anonymous sources being spent to influence this year’s elections through 501(c)(4)s and other tax-exempt entities, disclosure laws are more important than ever and need to be strengthened. The precedent set by these recent and pending disclosure challenges will largely shape the development of disclosure policy in the coming years.

6. Much has been written—and probably much more will be written—about the effect independent expenditures have had and will continue to have in elections. At the state and local level, what can regulators do about such independent expenditures? What jurisdictions are at the forefront of regulating independent expenditures from a disclosure standpoint?

One current goal of the Campaign Legal Center is to improve disclosure related to independent political spending. While the Citizens United decision unleashed a flood of corporate political spending in our elections, mainly by 501(c)(4) and other nonprofit corporations, the disclosure laws of many jurisdictions were written at a time when such entities were not permitted to make political expenditures. So while the laws of many jurisdictions might require a particular 501(c)(4) group to report that it made a political expenditure of “X” dollars, such laws too often don’t require such a spender to disclose where it got the money to pay for the ad buy.

Disclosure of the fact that a group with an innocuous sounding name like “Americans for America” spends money on ads is of little use to voters without information regarding where the group got its money. The State of Minnesota led the charge in the aftermath of Citizens United enacting legislation to improve disclosure of corporate political spending. The state, however, was promptly sued in Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life v. Swanson. The state prevailed before the district court and the Eighth Circuit, but in September of this year the Eighth Circuit en banc court invalidated one aspect of the challenged disclosure law and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. Jurisdictions considering amendments to their disclosure laws should pay close attention to this Minnesota case as it proceeds.

7. In the past few years, we have seen a myriad of changes in the campaign finance realm, primarily as a result of litigation. What changes do you see on the horizon in campaign finance law? How do you think the regulatory landscape for campaign finance law will look in ten years?

I’m generally disinclined to make such predictions, but I will venture a guess that we’ll increasingly hear calls to repeal limits on contributions to candidates and parties as a supposed “remedy” to the flood of unlimited contributions and expenditures by and through Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups in this year’s elections. The ridiculous irony of such a proposed fix, however, is that the very legal argument that led to this new post-Citizens United world of unlimited outside group fundraising and spending is that, unlike contributions to candidates and parties which have long been recognized as posing a threat of corruption warranting limits, money given to and spent by these outside groups doesn’t pose a threat of corruption because the groups are spending the money “independently” of candidates and parties. (Mind you, I don’t believe this argument, but a majority of the Supreme Court apparently does.) Proponents of deregulation would now have us believe that this flood of ostensibly non-corrupting outside group money in our elections warrants a new flood of long-recognized-as-corrupting unlimited contributions to candidates and parties. It makes no sense, but only time will tell if this next stage of corruption-inducing deregulation comes to pass.

8. Speaking of campaign finance litigation, our previous Guardian interview was with Jim Bopp, who the Atlantic has called the “intellectual architect” of the “new era of big money” in politics. As you know, Mr. Bopp is involved in many pending cases against a number of state campaign finance and ethics agencies. What advice do you have for agencies that may be the subject of litigation filed by Mr. Bopp?

Call me and my colleagues at the Campaign Legal Center ASAP!

9. On a lighter note, you share the same first and last name as a certain Wisconsin Congressman who is now a Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, and Washington, D.C. is in many respects a small town. Since you both work in Washington, do you have any humorous stories of mistaken identity you’d like to share with us?

Nothing particularly humorous, but I’ve received some bizarre mail and phone calls intended for the VP nominee, including one rambling voicemail left at 2:30AM from a man who had just written a speech he wanted the VP nominee to deliver to the nation—promising it would lead to a landslide victory for the Romney/Ryan ticket in November.

Wesley Bizzell is Assistant General Counsel for Altria Client Services Inc.