9th Circuit upholds Washington campaign finance laws

TUESDAY, OCT. 12, 2010, 4:05 P.M.

OLYMPIA — A federal appeals court upheld Washington state’s campaign disclosure laws today, saying the requirements don’t violate the First Amendment rights of a group that didn’t want to reveal their donors in a 2008 opposition campaign to an assisted suicide ballot measure.

The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that rejected Human Life of Washington’s contention that the state’s disclosure requirements for political committees, independent expenditures, and political advertising were unconstitutional.

The judges wrote that disclosure requirements “have become an important part of our First Amendment tradition.

“There is a substantial relationship between Washington State’s interest in informing the electorate and the definitions and disclosure requirements it employs to advance that interest,” they wrote.

Phone and e-mail messages left with Human Life and with James Bopp Jr., a noted campaign-finance attorney who represented Human Life, were not immediately returned today.

Human Life had argued that it shouldn’t have to register with the state as a political action committee, because it wanted to sponsor ads about the issue of assisted suicide, not ads explicitly about Initiative 1000, the “Death with Dignity” initiative that was on the November 2008 ballot. I-1000 was passed by nearly 60 percent of voters and took effect in March 2009. It allows terminally ill people to obtain lethal prescription drugs for ending their own lives.

The appellate court said that Human Life’s challenge to the law wasn’t moot even though the law had already passed because the politically active group would likely face this issue again in future election communications.

Six initiatives and one referendum are on the ballot in Washington state this year and state records show the campaigns have raised a combined $54 million, with about $16 million spent so far.

“Access to reliable information becomes even more important as more speakers, more speech and thus more spending enter the marketplace, which is precisely what has occurred in recent years,” the three-judge panel wrote. “Like campaigns for elected office, ballot initiatives are the subject of intense debate and, accordingly, greater expenditures to ensure that messages reach voters.”

Doug Ellis, interim Executive Director of the state Public Disclosure Commission agreed, saying: “The people’s right to know who is financing election campaigns is of the highest importance.”

Voters enacted the state’s public records law with the overwhelming passage of Initiative 276 in 1972. The measure called for disclosure of campaign finances, lobbyist activity, financial affairs of elective officers and candidates, and access to public records.

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