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Court strikes blow for transparency

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday correctly struck a blow for transparency in campaign finance, refusing to block a trial court judge’s ruling requiring some nonprofit groups to disclose donors’ names. The court’s order, issued without comment and without listing any dissenting votes, overturned a stay issued Saturday by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The ruling allows these groups to continue spending unlimited amounts of money on political ads. It just means they must reveal who gave them the money. The ruling applies to all liberal groups as well as conservative ones.

The case that prompted this started six years ago when Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a campaign-finance-reform group, filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission alleging the conservative group Crossroads GPS was violating federal law by keeping donors secret. The FEC deadlocked on whether to investigate Crossroads GPS, so CREW sued the FEC. Last month, Beryl Howell, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ordered nonprofit groups to disclose their donors’ identities.

In its landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court allowed nonprofit groups such as Crossroads GPS to spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against candidates. The court specifically said disclosing donors’ identities would serve the public interest, but it did not require disclosure, leaving that up to Congress. Congress did not follow through. Social welfare and business organizations that do not register as political committees with the FEC latched onto a 40-year-old FEC rule that said such groups had to disclose donors only when the donors themselves earmarked their contribution for specific political ads. Judge Howell rejected that, saying donors giving money with the express intention of advocating for or against a candidate for federal office should not be exempt from disclosure.

Crossroads GPS asked the Supreme Court to let the loophole stand while the appeal proceeds, and on Saturday, Roberts issued a stay of Howell’s ruling. On Tuesday, the full court lifted that stay.

Attorneys for Crossroads GPS argued that requiring disclosure would have a “chilling effect” on donors’ First Amendment rights to free speech and association. The president of a group advocating campaign finance deregulation predicted that some groups would choose “silence rather than speech” to avoid upsetting donors who thought they would remain anonymous.

Horrors.

If the First Amendment means we must allow interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence voters — as the Supreme Court has ruled — then voters should know where that money came from so they can evaluate the messages it pays for. In other words, donors should have to put their names where their money is.

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