PHOENIX — A federal judge has voided state laws requiring groups to register before spending money on campaigns — and with it, the reports they’re supposed to file on who is behind all that cash.
Judge James Teilborg accepted arguments by challengers that the statute dictating who must register is “vague, overbroad, and consequently unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment.” Teilborg said that means it cannot be enforced.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Drake said his office will ask Teilborg to delay the effect of the ruling, made late Friday, to provide a chance for an appeal. If nothing else, Drake said his office needs time to figure out how badly this undermines years of laws designed to give the public a better idea of who is contributing to political campaigns.
But Drake said he’s not optimistic.
“It does kind of turn campaign finance on its head,” he said.
At the very least, Drake said, Teilborg’s order eliminates the requirements for disclosure of funding by groups pushing or opposing ballot measures. It is not unusual for these campaigns to cost millions of dollars.
But attorney Paul Avelar of the Institute for Justice said he reads the ruling to apply to all the independent groups pushing to elect or defeat candidates.
That extends to the “dark money” groups, which say they already are exempt from laws requiring donors to be named and listed.
But the groups still have to disclose how much they are spending on TV commercials, newspaper ads and phone banks, and on which races. With Teilborg’s ruling, that also would disappear.
Friday’s order does not bar the state from requiring political committees to register. But legislators will have to recraft the law in a fashion that courts find to be constitutional.
What makes Friday’s ruling all the more unusual is that the state itself was never sued. But it got dragged in to the case — and now is subject to the court order.
This started as a spat between Dina Galassini and the town of Fountain Hills over her opposition to a 2011 bond election.
Town officials told her she had to first register as a political committee before she could hold protests prior to the election. She responded by contacting the Institute for Justice, which filed suit on her behalf.
Fountain Hills eventually backed off after Teilborg first ruled that the law was so badly worded as to be unintelligible, perhaps even to lawyers.
But the state has continued to enforce the registration and reporting requirements. So Avelar pursued the matter, with Teilborg now deciding in his favor.
Avelar said he will oppose not only any appeal by the state but even any effort to delay the effect of Teilborg’s order. He said there is no immediate harm to the state, what with this year’s election over and all the campaign finance reports for it now filed.
But beyond that, Avelar said state officials have no one but themselves to blame for the problem. He said they were put on notice of flaws in the law, first when his lawsuit was filed and then again last year when Teilborg issued his first order about Fountain Hills.
The judge made it clear at that time he found a problem.
He pointed out it takes 183 words in the statute to define who is a “political committee” and must register with the state and file reports. Teilborg said that “raises the issue of whether a person of ordinary intelligence can understand the sentence’s meaning.”
Less clear is how Teilborg’s order affects campaign finance requirements under the voter-approved Citizens Clean Elections Act.
Thomas Collins, executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, said he believes the ruling does not overturn a separate requirement under that act that any group seeking to influence a candidate race must file reports with the commission. Collins said he needs to consult with the Attorney General’s Office, however.
The commission has no purview over ballot measures.