OLYMPIA – The U.S. Supreme Court answered once and for all Tuesday whether a conservative group can hide the names of donors to a campaign against an assisted suicide initiative.
The court refused to hear an appeal of lower courts’ rulings against Human Life of Washington, which sought an injunction against the state’s Public Disclosure Commission for a planned 2008 campaign against assisted suicide. (Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the group refused to report donors and the PDC found it in violation of disclosure laws.)
It was the second time in eight months the nation’s highest court upheld state disclosure laws being challenged by faith-based groups. In both cases the groups were defended by an attorney who challenges election laws around the country.
Human Life argued the state’s public disclosure laws violated its First Amendment rights, and that it wouldn’t be mentioning Initiative 1000, which sought to legalize assisted suicide in the state, but was merely offering information about issue of assisted suicide.
The federal district court denied the injunction and Human Life never launched the campaign. I-1000 qualified for the ballot and was approved by voters that November.
The attorney for Human Life, James Bopp Jr. of the Indiana-based James Madison Center for Free Speech, recently described the case as one that sought to protect vital First Amendment rights. Human Life was being required “to spend many hours keeping exact records and filing detailed, complicated reports of receipts and expenditures,” he wrote in a statement for the center’s website last week.
A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel also sided with the state requirements. The state’s public disclosure law, approved by voters in 1974, represents “an important part of our First Amendment tradition,” the panel said. It gives the public access to information about what their government is doing.
With the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday – technically a denial of certiorari – the appeals court ruling stands.
It’s the second challenge to state disclosure laws to fall short at the nation’s highest court.
In June, the Supreme Court rejected a request by another group represented by Bopp to block disclosure of names on all initiative and referendum petitions. Protect Marriage Washington had circulated Referendum 71, which sought to overturn the new domestic partnership law in 2009, and argued releasing the names on petitions violated the signers’ constitutional rights.
Voters agreed to keep the new domestic partnership laws in 2009, and passed assisted suicide in 2008.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state’s top elections officer, called Tuesday’s decision another victory for Washington voters: “They want their political process to be open and transparent and to know who’s working to change public policy.”
Disclosure laws have been challenged from both ends of the political spectrum, Reed said. In the early 1990s, the Socialist Workers Party was allowed to shield its donors after the courts agreed those people could be fired if employers learned they were members of the party. But such exemptions must be granted case by case, the courts said.
A trial on Protect Marriage Washington’s narrower request to block just Referendum 71 signatures is set for later this year.
In last year’s Referendum 71 ruling, Reed noted that Justice Antonin Scalia had advice for people entering the political arena.
“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,” Scalia wrote.