One of the few silver linings on the Supreme Court’s election-buying decision in Citizens United was its holding that — although corporations are now free to spend as much money as they want to elect their preferred candidates — such spending could still be subject to disclosure laws so long as those laws bear a “substantial relation” to “’providing the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending.” The most Republican federal court of appeals in the country just wiped away much of this silver lining, however, striking down a Minnesota law requiring corporations seeking to buy elections to register their political fund and make regular public disclosures of its activities.
In an opinion joined by six of the court’s Republican appointees, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit effectively reduced the Supreme Court’s endorsement of disclosure laws into a ban on disclosure rules that corporations might find inconvenient:
Perhaps most onerous is the ongoing reporting requirement. Once initiated, the requirement is potentially perpetual regardless of whether the association ever again makes an independent expenditure. The reporting requirements apparently end only if the association dissolves the political fund. To dissolve the political fund, the association must first settle the political fund’s debts, dispose of its assets valued in excess of $100 — including physical assets and credit balances — and file a termination report with the Board. Of course, the association’s constitutional right to speak through independent expenditures dissolves with the political fund. To speak again, the association must initiate the bureaucratic process again.
Under Minnesota’s regulatory regime, an association is compelled to decide whether exercising its constitutional right is worth the time and expense of entering a long-term morass of regulatory red tape.
The plaintiffs in this case were represented by GOP anti-campaign finance crusader James Bopp, who frequently represents anti-abortion and anti-gay groups. One of the likely consequences of Bopp’s victory is that corporate donors seeking to promote an anti-gay ballot initiative seeking to write marriage discrimination into the Minnesota constitution will not be subject to disclosure.
Five judges, including three Republicans, dissented from this expansion of Citizens United. In the Citizens United opinion itself, only Justice Thomas broke with the Court’s endorsement of disclosure laws. Thomas also believes that national child labor laws are unconstitutional.