A political committee backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was required to disclose the donors who paid for campaign ads in the 2004...
A political committee backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was required to disclose the donors who paid for campaign ads in the 2004 state attorney general’s race, Washington’s Supreme Court said Thursday.
The U.S. Chamber, working with a group called the “Voters Education Committee,” ran advertisements criticizing the record of Democratic hopeful Deborah Senn during the 2004 primary campaign.
The Voters Education Committee initially refused to register as a political campaign group with the state or reveal the source of its money. The committee later reported a $1.5 million donation from the U.S. Chamber, which in turn has refused to reveal its donors.
Washington state’s Public Disclosure Commission sued the Voters Education Committee to force its financial disclosures. The committee countersued, arguing that Washington’s campaign disclosure law was an unconstitutional restraint of free speech.
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On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the state, rejecting the Voters Education Committee’s argument that state campaign finance law was unconstitutionally vague.
“Contrary to VEC’s assertions, these disclosure requirements do not restrict political speech — they merely ensure that the public receives accurate information about who is doing the speaking,” Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote for the majority.
The ruling could move the battle back to King County Superior Court for a penalty against the committee, barring any appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Attorneys for the Voters Education Committee could not immediately be reached for comment on a possible appeal. Senn’s lawyer, Michael Withey, said he believes a federal appeal by the committee is “quite likely.”
In its lawsuit, the Voters Education Committee argued that it was not required to register as a political group because it was sponsoring “issue advocacy” ads, rather than “express advocacy” pieces aimed directly at a candidate.
A King County Superior Court judge rejected that argument, saying the ads in question specifically advocated against Senn as a candidate.
The state Supreme Court, however, stopped its inquiry after finding that the legal definition of “political committee” was not unconstitutionally vague.
Since that label applied to the Voters Education Committee, it was required to report its donors. There was no need to determine which type of ads the group paid for, the court held.
In a dissent, Justice James Johnson said the political committee statute was too vague to be upheld. He was joined by Justice Richard Sanders.
“The majority’s approach denies all speakers the constitutional right to craft a message that is educational … but not subject to disclosure requirements,” Johnson wrote for the minority.
Senn, a former state insurance commissioner, defeated former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran in the 2004 attorney general’s primary. She lost the general election to Republican Rob McKenna, who defended the state in Thursday’s case.
State legislators, inspired by the Senn ads, later amended campaign finance law to specify that third-party groups buying ads in a political campaign must disclose their donors.