WASHINGTON – Advocacy groups spending millions of dollars to influence the 2012 election now face the prospect of having to reveal their secret donors, after a federal appellate court panel refused to block a lower-court order requiring the disclosure.
In a 2-to-1 decision issued Monday evening, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel here declined to stay a ruling by a federal judge requiring tax-exempt organizations that run election-related television ads to disclose their donors.
The panel’s decision was a significant victory for campaign finance reform advocates who have been fighting against the deluge of money – much of it from undisclosed donors – that has flooded the political landscape in the wake of several Supreme Court decisions.
“It’s the first major breakthrough in overcoming the massive amounts of secret contributions that are flowing into federal elections,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the reform group Democracy 21, one of the groups involved in the case brought by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., against the Federal Election Commission.
Conservative legal experts argue that requiring disclosure exposes political donors to potential retribution, stifling free speech.
It remains to be seen whether the decision will actually force any groups to disclose their donors; many are scrambling to find ways around it. But there is no question that it complicates the political plans of heavyweight players such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an array of well-financed, conservative, nonprofit groups such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity that have taken the lead in a costly air war against President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. Liberal tax-exempt groups, which spend far less on the type of ads in question, will also be affected.
The Van Hollen decision still could be delayed or overturned. Two organizations seeking an appeal of the lower court’s ruling are expected to request a stay to halt the order. But election law experts say there is no guarantee they will be successful, noting that the high court has repeatedly endorsed the disclosure of contributors.