Article Comment 

State appeals political spending law ruling

 

Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

 

JACKSON -- Attorney General Jim Hood has appealed a federal judge's ruling that part of Mississippi's campaign finance law creates an unconstitutional burden for people or groups that spend at least $200 to support or oppose a ballot initiative. 

 

The appeal was filed in October in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The court has not set out a briefing schedule in the case. 

 

"We appealed because we respectfully believe the court erred in declaring unconstitutional this important piece of our campaign finance disclosure statutes. The matter is important enough that we believe the federal appeals court should review the case," Hood told The Associated Press. 

 

U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock ruled in September that the state may require some level of campaign finance reporting by people or groups that attempt to influence elections on proposed constitutional amendments that appear on the statewide ballot. 

 

The state required groups or individuals to register and report spending more than $200 on a ballot issue. 

 

Aycock said the law requiring group registration and individual reporting is "unconstitutional" under the First Amendment. 

 

However, Aycock said Mississippi may regulate individuals and groups attempting to influence constitutional ballot measures, but that its "convoluted and exacting" requirements are "too burdensome" with the $200 threshold. 

 

When Aycock's ruling was released, Hood said an appeal ruling could be difficult because federal courts haven't been kind to states' defense of their own campaign finance laws. 

 

The lawsuit was filed in 2011 by five Oxford residents. They challenged Mississippi's campaign finance reporting requirements for those supporting or opposing ballot initiatives. They were backing an initiative that ultimately was approved by voters that year, limiting the government's use of eminent domain to take private land. They were represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group based in Virginia. 

 

Under Mississippi law, groups seeking to support or oppose statewide balloted measures must register as a political committee if they receive contributions of more than $200 during a calendar year or spent more than $200 in a calendar year. 

 

The plaintiffs in the case planned to raise money to buy advertisements, distribute flyers and buy posters. 

 

They would be required to file monthly and later annual reports on contributions and expenditures until the committee was dissolved. 

 

The law also requires the campaign finance reports to include the name and address of everyone who donated more than $200 to the group opposing or supporting a ballot issue. 

 

Plaintiffs argued that being forced to navigate Mississippi's campaign finance laws "effectively chilled and continue to chill their attempt to speak out regarding constitutional ballot measures." They argued the Mississippi's financial disclosure regime places an unconstitutional burden on their First Amendment rights. 

 

The plaintiffs argued that the statutes' threshold amount for registration and disclosure of anything greater than $200 is too low compared to the burdens the subsequent requirements impose. 

 

Aycock agreed. She said the disclosure requirements are complicated and burdensome on such small groups. 

 

Aycock's ruling did not change the part of the campaign finance law that requires candidates for statewide office or legislative seats to file reports disclosing the name, address and occupation of anyone donating at least $200 to their campaigns. 

 

Paul Avelar, an Institute for Justice attorney, said this week that Aycock's ruling was a victory for the First Amendment right of freedom of speech. 

 

"All the federal courts that have looked at whether a state can impose an onerous campaign finance burden on small groups have said they can't," Avelar said. 

 

"If the First Amendment means anything it must protect the ability of people to talk to their friends and neighbors and with their friends and neighbors during an election." 

 

Avelar said the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have not treated ballot issues the same as campaign finance reporting for candidates and those involved elections because of a threat of corruption. 

 

"On ballot issues, the Supreme Court has said there is no threat of corruption and so if the state is forcing people to abide by a host of very vague and burdensome laws, the only interest to the state is called the informational interest," he said. 

 

The U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United ruling broadly defined an informational interest as a voter being entitled to know who stands behind a political position because it is useful information. 

 

Hood has previously said the Citizens United decision is "one of the most damaging court decisions to our American democratic system. When working people and the American press do not know which corporate interests are funding a political campaign, the working people lose." 

 

But Avelar said many federal courts have found "that's not a very strong interest when you are talking about people who are not spending a lot of money when they are talking about a ballot issue."

 

 

 

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