Category: Election Law


FAN 85 (First Amendment News) “Is phone sex violent?” — Posner challenges lawyer in online classified advertising case

There’s no sex in your violence — Bush, “Everything Zen

Judge Richard Posner

Judge Richard Posner

Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner was in a plucky mood last week when Backpage,com v. Dart was argued before his panel, which included Judges Diane Sykes and Kenneth Ripple. ) More about Judge Posner (and sex) shortly, but first a few things about the case. is the second largest online classified advertising website in the U.S., after Craigslist. Users post more than six million ads monthly in various categories, including buy/sell/trade, automotive, real estate, jobs, dating and adult. Users provide all content for their ads; hosts the forum for their speech. Thomas Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, wanted to eliminate online classified advertising of “adult” or “escort” services. And why? As the Sheriff saw it, such ads were little more than solicitations for prostitution. He also argued that these ads facilitate human trafficking and the exploitation of children. Last June the Sheriff sent letters to the CEOs of Visa and Mastercard to “request” that they “cease and desist” allowing their credit cards “to be used to place ads on websites like, which we have objectively found to promote prostitution and facilitate online sex trafficking.” It worked; the companies blocked the transactions.

→ District Court: went to federal court and first sought a temporary restraining order and later a  preliminary injunction based on First Amendment grounds. District Judge John J. Tharp Jr. presided over the case. “In arguing that it is likely to succeed on the merits,” said Judge Tharp, “Backpage contends that Dart’s actions constitute precisely the type of informal prior restraint condemned as a First Amendment violation in Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan (1963).” Judge Tharp thus concluded: “The Court makes no judgment as to the merits of Backpage’s claims, and any factual findings it has made are preliminary only and not binding in any proceedings on the merits.” On August 21, 2015, the court denied’s motion for a preliminary injunction, thought it had previously granted a TRO in the case. In any event, appealed.

 The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief as did the Center for Democracy & Technology (see here) in support of the Petitioner.

Excerpts from Oral Arguments in the 7th Circuit

Below are select excerpts, which I transcribed, from the oral arguments in the Seventh Circuit. The arguments began with a presentation by Robert Corn-Revere. Judge Posner did not pose any questions to Appellant’s counsel anytime during the arguments, though Judges Sykes and Ripple did ask a few questions. Ms. Hariklia Karis argued on behalf of Appellee Sheriff Dart. Her arguments, by contrast, were met at the outset and thereafter with vigorous questioning from Judge Posner as indicated by the excerpts below.

Judge Posner: “You know, a police official has to be very careful in what he says. This is not Tom Dart as a private citizen, writing a letter to a newspaper or something, saying he doesn’t like Backpage. This is all done, office of the Sheriff, official stationary  — well anybody receiving an offcial communication from a sheriff is going to feel there is an implicit threat to follow this up with legal action.”

Ms. Karis: “Your honor, both VISA and Mastercard have both established that they did not receive or perceive this an an offical threat. . . .”

Judge Posner: “You believe that?”

Ms. Karis: “I absolutely believe that, and the the evidence is undisputed –“

Judge Posner: “Well, that’s ridiculous. These people, these companies do not feel they can defy an official . . . There’s nothing, you know, that Dart has.”

Ms. Karis: “VISA has spoken and submitted an affidavit in this court, which the district court considered, in which their vice-president for global brand reputation specifically said [that] he did not view the letter –“

Judge Posner: “Well what do you expect them to say?”

Ms. Karis: “Your honor –“

Judge Posner: “We’re knuckling under to threats? . . . Look, the tone of [the Sheriff’s letters] is so unprofessional. He talks about a violent industry; is phone sex violent? . . . “

Ms. Karis: “It can be.”

Judge Posner: “Really?”

Ms. Karis: “It certainly can.”

Judge Posner: “How?”

Ms. Karis: “Depending on whether children are involved — “

Judge Posner: “We’re not talking about children here. . . . And all the adults are getting swept up with the children?”

Ms. Karis: “The adults are not getting swept up with the children.”

Judge Posner: “Well they are. Adults who participate [chuckling] in phone sex with each other are potential targets. And what about old people, old men [chuckling] who would like to be seen with a young woman. Right? That is an aspect of the escort service; it’s not all sex!”

Ms. Hariklia Karis

Ms. Hariklia Karis

Ms. Karis: “Sheriff Dart did not take down the content or propose to take down the content of Backpage’s webpage, which was not illegal conduct. MasterCard in particular, to your Honor’s question of the recipient receiving this and what can they say, MasterCard had already decided that they no longer wanted to be affiliated with Backpage one week before Sheriff Dart ever sent that letter out. That evidence is undisputed.”

 Judge Posner: “Well, I’m sure that VISA and MasterCard don’t want to spend their time fending off whacks from Sheriff Dart. Right? These companies make a decision. Right? They don’t want to be slandered by a high government official.” Read More


FAN 83.2 (First Amendment News) Court Declines to Hear Compelled Disclosure Case

This morning the Supreme Court declined to hear Center for Competitive Politics v. HarrisThe issues in the case were twofold:

  1. Whether a state official’s demand for all significant donors to a nonprofit organization, as a precondition to engaging in constitutionally-protected speech, constitutes a First Amendment injury; and
  2. whether the “exacting scrutiny” standard applied in compelled disclosure cases permits state officials to demand donor information based upon generalized “law enforcement” interests, without making any specific showing of need.

UnknownThe case involved a California law that requires tax-exempt charitable organizations to file reports with the state Registry of Charitable Trusts. Pursuant to that law, California Attorney General Pamela Harris required such charities to submit a list of the names and addresses of its major donors. Thus, all charities soliciting donations in California must provide the state A.G. with a copy of their IRS 990 form, which contains such donor information. That information is not made public but is used by the state A.G. to ensure compliance with the law and to safeguard against fraud and illegality.

The California law was challenged by the Center for Competitive Politics (a 501(c)(3) that works on election law). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Center sought to enjoin the California Attorney General from requiring it to disclose the names and contributions of its “significant donors.”

A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the Center’s claims that such compelled disclosure violated its First Amendment associational rights.

Today the Supreme Court denied the Center’s petition for a writ of certiorari, which had been filed by the Center’s legal director Allen Dickerson.

Amicus briefs in support of the Petitioner were filed by the Cato Institute (Ilya Shapiro), American TargetAdvertising, Inc. and 57 Nonprofit and Other Organizations (Mark Fitzgibbons), Institute for Justice (Diana K. Simpson), Pacific Legal Foundation (Timothy Sandefur), Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence (John. C. Eastman), The Philanthropy Roundtable (Allyson N. Ho), and the States of Arizona, Michigan, and South Carolina (John R. Lopez, IV).


  1. George Will, “The Supreme Court’s opportunity to tackle sinister trends,” Washington Post, November 4, 2015 (urging review)
  2. Editorial, “Show Us Your Donors,” Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2015 (urging review)
  3. Lyle Denniston, “Group seeks privacy for donor list,” SCOTUSblog, May 15, 2015
  4. Edward Pettersson, “Koch Group Gets to Keep Donors Secret in California Lawsuit,” Bloomberg Business, February 17, 2015 (discussing District Court ruling by Judge Manuel Real in favor of Petitioners).

FAN 74.1 (First Amendment News) First Amendment Salon goes to L.A. — Chemerinsky & Volokh discuss Roberts Court & First Amendment . . . & more!

It was a remarkable late-afternoon program yesterday as the First Amendment Salon went on the road for the first time with an event held at the Los Angeles office of Davis Wright Tremaine. There was a live video feed to DWT’s offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. Those participating in the Salon (the sixth) were UC Irvine Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh with DWT lawyer Kelli Sager moderating the exchange between the two. The Salons are conducted in association with the law firm of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz and the Floyd Abrams Institute for Free Expression at Yale Law School. (Chemerinsky and Volokh are on the Salon’s advisory board). Lee Levine introduced the program. The topic of discussion for the 90-minute exchange, replete with questions from the audience, was “The Roberts Court and the First Amendment.”

Eugene Volokh, Erwin Chemerinsky & Kelli Sager

                        Eugene Volokh, Erwin Chemerinsky & Kelli Sager

The Chemerinsky-Volokh exchange was nuanced and esoteric yet always insightful, informative, and engaging. Ms.Sager ably navigated the discussion through a variety of topics including:

  • First Amendment law in the context of the government acting as sovereign vs the government acting in a managerial capacity
  • the reach of the government speech doctrine after Walker
  •  the future of “strict scrutiny” analysis after Williams-Yulee
  • whether in light of Williams-Yulee (and the idea that judicial elections are different) independent expenditures might be regulated notwithstanding the holding in Buckley
  • the impact of Reed on the “secondary effects” doctrine
  • the likelihood that the trio of Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan will be able to persuade a majority of the Court to abandon strict scrutiny in content-discrimination cases
  • whether in the Friedrichs case the Court will overrule Abood (reference was made to Catherine Fisk’s SCOTUSblog post “The Friedrichs petition should be dismissed“)
  • what important First Amendment issues are not before the Court but which need to be
  • whether the Court is likely to grant cert. in a “right to publicity” case (see Law360 Aug. 14, 2015 news story here)
  • and how the Court has yet to give any serious consideration, post Reno and Ashcroft, as to how the Internet impacts First Amendment law.
Judge Alex Kozinski

Judge Alex Kozinski

And there was more, much more, including a variety of questions from the audience consisting of First Amendment lawyers and law professors, journalists, and free-speech activists.

BTW: Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski was in the audience and asked the two professors to comment on the following statement: “The big threat to free speech in the next twenty years is from foreign countries” trying to enforce “right to be forgotten” laws against the likes of Google and ordering them to remove certain items from all of their posts in all nations, including the United States. “The right to be forgotten,” he added, “is just the first of what may be many laws that are more speech restrictive than those of the U.S., e.g. defamation, privacy, and moral rights.” [See Mike Masnick, “Google Disappears Techdirt Article About Right To Be Forgotten Due To Right To Be Forgotten Request,”, Aug. 25, 2015)]

Shout out to the fine folks at Davis Wright Tremaine for hosting the Los Angeles Salon.

The L.A. Salon event was video-recored and I hope to post a link to it soon.

Go here for video of fifth Salon: “Is the First Amendment Being Misused as a Deregulatory Tool?”  The exchange, held at the Abrams Institute at Yale Law School, was between Professors Jack Balkin and Martin Redish with Floyd Abrams moderating.


Early Voting and a Uniform Election Date

I’ve got a question for folks who are knowledgeable about election law. During the early nineteenth century, states held elections for the House of Representatives and for Presidency on different dates.  The results would slowly trickle in over a few months.  Eventually, Congress concluded that this was not a good system and established a uniform national election day for federal offices.

Why then is early voting in some states for these offices permissible? In effect, we no longer have a uniform national election day.  I can think of a few ways of reconciling this (after reading the statutes):

1.  The “election” means the last day that votes can be cast.  You cannot have late voting, but you can have early voting.  Maybe, but does that mean that a state can set early voting to begin at any time after the nominees are known?  Say, a day after the primary? And did Congress really have early voting in mind when they created a uniform election day?

2.  The “election” means the day that the votes are counted.  We want all of the results announced on the same day (if possible), and that is what the statutes require.  Maybe, but I would think that the ordinary meaning of an election involving casting and counting, not just counting.

3.  There have always been exceptions to a uniform election day (namely, absentee voting).  Thus, the federal statutes do not require all votes to be cast on the same day.  True enough, but how far can you take this logic?

UPDATE:  The Fifth Circuit addressed this issue in Voting Integrity Project, Inc. v. Bomer, 199 F.3d 773 (5th Cir. 2000).  Basically, the Court went with a combination of all three reasons listed above.  The only limit to early voting that a state may not conclude the election prior to Election Day.


FAN 72 (First Amendment News) Megyn Kelly — Bold Defender of Free Speech Freedoms

In America we stand for liberty, and freedom to offend, to provoke, to persuade, and to defy. — Megyn Kelly

Megyn Kelly

Megyn Kelly

Though she is a news anchor, she is very much in the news these days. She is the object of a national discussion about women. And it all stemmed from a pointed, polite, and entirely appropriate  question she posed to the most outspoken candidate currently seeking to be President of the United States.

She is, of course, Fox’s Megyn Kelly, the one who has a TV following of 2.8 million followers. Before entering the world of journalism, Ms. Kelly held her able own at the Jones Day law firm.

Her calling card: Feisty, informed, incredulous, and quick-witted. Make of her what you will — too conservative, too blond, or maybe too tough on the likes of Karl RoveDick Cheney and Donald Trump. As for the Trump flap, Ms. Kelly stood her free-press ground: ““I certainly will not apologize for doing good journalism, so I’ll continue doing my job without fear or favor,” she told viewers of The Kelly File. By the same journalistic measure, recall Ms. Kelly’s skepticism, which proved to be founded, concerning Duke University’s alleged sexual assault incident.

However you cast her, there is also this: Megyn Kelly is bullish on the First Amendment. While we still need to hear more from her on any variety of free-speech issues, what we do know at this point is that she is a woman who yields no ground when it come to our First Freedom.

[N]o matter how abhorrent one might find another’s words, in this country, we defend their right to say them. Standing up for that principle is not an endorsement of the controversial speech. It is promoting a value at the very core of who we are.  Megyn Kelly

There’s a spark of Nat Hentoff in her steadfast commitment to free speech. Just consider her response to a claim made by TV critic Howard Kurtz: “There’s a reason free speech is in Amendment number one. It goes to the core of our principles as Americans and what we stand for. You can hate the message, you can hate everything they’re saying … that is allowed in the United States of America, because, as the Supreme Court once put it, the answer to speech you do not like is not less speech. It’s more speech,”

Mr. Kelly & Mr. O'Reilly

Ms. Kelly & Mr. O’Reilly

When it comes to free speech, the TV news anchor and commentator is willing to go toe-to-toe with  anyone, even if that someone is Bill O’Reilly: “The relevnt question is not [whether] those under attack say something offensive, the relevnt question is what we do about a group that wants to kill us for exercising our contitutional rights.” (See also here)

Before the recent Trump flap, she gave the blustery billionaire a civics lesson: “What do we stand for as Americans if not freedom of speech and the ability to express yourself?”

Not surprisingly, some in the First Amendment community are taking note of Ms. Kelly and her views on free speech.

Alan Dershowitz: “Megyn Kelly has demonstrated how the First Amendment can be used to expose the real views of candidates. She provokes, and she succeeds. Keep it up.” (see also here)

Nadine Strossen: “As a law professor, I join Prof. Alan Dershowitz in awarding Megyn Kelly an A for her solid understanding of core First Amendment principles that Justices across the ideological spectrum have consistently upheld.  As a civil libertarian, I award her an A+ for her fearless, impassioned, and eloquent defense of those principles when too many others – also across the ideological spectrum – seek to trim back our First Amendment rights in response to what the Supreme Court has called “the heckler’s veto,” but what Megyn has correctly referred to as “the assassin’s veto.”

Robert Corn-Revere: “Megyn Kelly provides a clear and consistent reminder that the right to free expression includes the right to offend, and, in fact, that right cannot exist when some assert a right not to be offended.  Ms. Kelly recognizes that the role of some people in the marketplace of ideas may be mainly to serve as bad examples – but that is the only way the system can work effectively.  Everyone should have their say, and people will choose what ideas to accept or to reject.”

“Kelly speaks in a jazz-improv progression of italics, all-caps and boldface.” That is how Jim Rutenberg portrayed her in a recent and lengthy New York Times magazine profile titled “The Megyn Kelly Moment.” There is truth there provided one adds the word informed.

Ms. Kelly & Richard Fowler

Ms. Kelly & Richard Fowler

When it comes to free speech, her passion tracks her informed grasp of her subject. Simply consider her exchange with Richard Fowler when they were discussing the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest: “The more offensive speech is, Richard, the more protection it needs. That’s how the First Amendment works. We can defend the First Amendment right to say it without aligning ourselves with the message.” She took exception, strong exception, to notion that Americans should be squeamish or apologetic about their exercise of their First Amendment rights. She took even strainer exception to those who counseled otherwise.

In much the same vein, she took the Catholic League’s President, Bill Donohue, to task over his criticism of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. With finger pointed and eyes scanning, she quoted approvingly from Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s 1988 majority opinion in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell: “[T]he freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.” [quoting Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc. (1984)]

Ms. Kelly & Professor Eugene Volokh

Ms. Kelly & Professor Eugene Volokh

In a May 7, 2015 program, Kelly found a First Amendment ally in UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh. At the outset of that program she was emphatic: “The terrorist point was to shut us up, not just the organizers of the [Draw Muhammed Cartoon Contest] but also any American who danes to disagree with their  way of life or thinking. . . . In this country we have every right to say what we want to say about Muhammed or about anyone else for that matter.” Volokh agreed: “People are free to engage in much more offensive speech than that.” He went on to explain how the contours of modern free speech law were consistent with Ms. Kelly’s views and how such speech had value as “a reaffirmation of our free speech rights . . . “

Will her commitment continue? Will she vacillate when other tough First Amendment issues are presented to her? Who knows?  That said, it seems likely that Ms. Kelly will become an even grander figure in the world of free speech in the days and months ahead.

 See here for a listing of Ms. Kelly’s various comments concerning the First Amendment.

Opinion in Amarin Pharma, Inc. v. U.S. Food & Drug Adminstration Read More

Berlusconi-fication: Cutting Out the Middle Man

2630085549_eebd0ce895_oRecently Rick Perlstein described American elections as a “plutocrat’s right to choose.” Such concerns have also been raised by conservative media. A political economy premised on the trading of money for power, and power for money, gives rise to an oligarchic constitutional order. Political science responds with “investor theories” of politics, where the key players are not the voters, but the donors. Politicians become vessels for their agendas.

As Jeffrey Winters observes, many types of oligarchies can develop. Americans might be interested in learning more about what might be deemed a “direct” oligarchy, where one-time donors forego buying the favor of leaders, and simply run for office themselves. Some very wealthy candidates of the right and left have fit this bill, and done passably as leaders. But the independence afforded by great wealth can also lead to flamboyantly erratic behavior, particularly among men long unaccustomed to accounting for their actions to others. Consider, for instance, the billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, a long-time Italian leader:

Perhaps the most famous example of Berlusconian rule-bending—and the one with the most popular results—was his takeover of Italian TV. Television was introduced to Italy, in 1954, through a single channel, RAI, administered by the ruling Christian Democratic Party; the highlight of its programming was the Pope’s Sunday-morning Mass, which is still on the air. For decades, the government controlled television: in the seventies, political parties were allotted news coverage in exact proportion to their votes in parliament. Then, in 1976, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that private broadcasting could be allowed on a local level. Berlusconi, who had made a fortune building suburban housing developments, began buying up local stations and broadcasting the same content on all of them. In order to comply with the letter of the court’s ruling, he staggered the broadcasts by a few seconds on each network.

Technically, these were local broadcasts; effectively, as Berlusconi made clear to advertisers, he had a national market, which he glutted with American programs like “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” and “Falcon Crest”—stories of sex and money…Berlusconi…believed that appetites existed to be stoked and sated, and he imported both American entertainment and the advertising environment that supported it. “I’m in favor of everything American before even knowing what it is,” he once told the Times.

Despite a long record of self-dealing, scandal, and outrageous statements, Berlusconi spent 9 years as Prime Minister. He had great appeal as a rascally anti-hero, exulting in a mix of la dolce vita and la vida loca. Thank goodness America, a mature democracy, could never fall for such a dubious mix of wealth and celebrity.

Photo Credit: CluPix.


FAN 68.1 (First Amendment News) Wisconsin high court strikes down campaign finance laws in Walker dispute

As reported in the New York Times: “The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a criminal investigation into coordination between conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 campaign cannot continue. The decision of the court ends the specter of a criminal investigation as Mr. Walker pursues the Republican nomination for president. Mr. Walker, who has won three elections for governor over the last five years including a recall challenge in 2012, officially announced his bid on Monday.”

Today the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down in ruling in Wisconsin v. Peterson, et alJustice Michael Gableman wrote the lead opinion. Justice David T. Prosser wrote a long concurring opinion in which Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack joined as to Sections IV and V of the opinion, and Justices Annette Kingsland Ziegler and Michael Gableman joined as to Section IV of the opinion. Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote an opinion concurring and dissenting in part. Justice Patrick Crooks likewise wrote an opinion concurring and dissenting in part. All tolled the various opinions came to 634 paragraphs. (Justice Ann Walsh Bradley did not participate).

The case concerned charges that Governor Scott Walker’s campaign team violated certain campaign finance laws during the 2012 recall elections by working in conjunction with dark money groups.

In relevant part, the Court declared:

To be clear, this conclusion ends the John Doe investigation because the special prosecutor’s legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law.  Consequently, the investigation is closed.  Consistent with our decision and the order entered by Reserve Judge Peterson, we order that the special prosecutor and the district attorneys involved in this investigation must cease all activities related to the investigation, return all property seized in the investigation from any individual or organization, and permanently destroy all copies of information and other materials obtained through the investigation.  All Unnamed Movants are relieved of any duty to cooperate further with the investigation.

It also added:

Our lengthy discussion of these three cases can be distilled into a few simple, but important, points.  It is utterly clear that the special prosecutor has employed theories of law that do not exist in order to investigate citizens who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.   In other words, the special prosecutor was the instigator of a “perfect storm” of wrongs that was visited upon the innocent Unnamed Movants and those who dared to associate with them.  It is fortunate, indeed, for every other citizen of this great State who is interested in the protection of fundamental liberties that the special prosecutor chose as his targets innocent citizens who had both the will and the means to fight the unlimited resources of an unjust prosecution.  Further, these brave individuals played a crucial role in presenting this court with an opportunity to re-endorse its commitment to upholding the fundamental right of each and every citizen to engage in lawful political activity and to do so free from the fear of the tyrannical retribution of arbitrary or capricious governmental prosecution. Let one point be clear: our conclusion today ends this unconstitutional John Doe investigation.

Over at the Election Law Blog, Professor Richard Hasen noted:

Today’s lengthy and contentious 4-2 ruling dividing the Court on partisan/ideological lines, from the Wisconsin Supreme Court ending the so-called “John Doe” probe is significant for three reasons: (1) it removes a cloud from the Scott Walker presidential campaign; (2) it guts, perhaps for years, the effectiveness of the state of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws, and (3) it reenforces conservative beliefs that they are the victims of frightening harassment, a belief which is likely to lead conservative judges to strike more campaign laws.  The case also raises significant questions about judicial recusal which go unanswered, and provide one of two potential bases to seek U.S. Supreme Court review in this case. Still, high court review seems unlikely.

Check with the Election Law Blog as Professor Hasen has additional substantive comments on the case.


FAN 67 (First Amendment News) En Banc Unanimous Ruling from DC Circuit Upholds Federal Ban on Contributions by Federal Contractors

This is quite a big deal, especially in its unanimity. — Richard Hasen, Election Law Blog

Most difficult of all to accept is that the court of appeals saw nothing amiss with the law that allows corporate contractors, their officers, directors and shareholders to make contributions within the limits of the law, but denied these individual contractors a similar opportunity. — Alan Morrison, lead counsel for the Plaintiffs

On the bright side, contractors’ rights to speak independently, through SuperPACs and otherwise, are unaffected; while the court didn’t reach that issue, the government is clearly much less justified in regulating that space. Ilya Shapiro, co-counsel on amicus brief in support of the Plaintiffs.

Chief Judge Merrick Garland

Chief Judge Merrick Garland

“In a victory for good government, the en banc D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today unanimously — and correctly — rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of the federal ban on campaign contributions by federal contractors. The ban applies to corporations, other entities and individuals who have federal contracts.” That is how Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 described yesterday’s ruling in Wagner v. Federal Election CommissionDemocracy 21 joined with the Campaign Legal Center and Public Citizen to file an amicus brief in the Wagner case supporting the constitutionality of the government contractor contribution ban. (See 52 U.S.C. § 30119(a)(1))

The 62-page opinion was written by Chief Judge Merrick Garland, and there were no separate opinions. The other jurists sitting on the case were Circuit Judges Karen Henderson, Judith Rogers, David Tatel, Janice Rogers Brown, Kavanaugh, Sri Srinivasan, Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins.

Here are some highlights from Chief Judge Garland’s opinion:

  1. Standard of Review: “We . . . proceed to examine whether, with respect to § 30119, the government has “‘demonstrate[d] a sufficiently important interest and employ[ed] means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms.’”
  2. Historical backdrop: “historical pedigree is significant. As the Court said in Beaumont, ‘[j]udicial deference is particularly warranted where, as here, we deal with a congressional judgment that has remained essentially unchanged throughout a century of ‘careful legislative adjustment.’ [citation] Moreover, . . . the lineage of the statute makes clear that its objects are the legitimate and important purposes that the Commission claims they are.”
  3. Quid pro quo corruption: “Of course, we would not expect to find — and we cannot demand — continuing evidence of large-scale quid pro quo corruption or coercion involving federal contractor contributions because such contributions have been banned since 1940. . . . [Even so, the] FEC has assembled an impressive, if dismaying, account of pay-to-play contracting scandals, not only in the above states, but also in New Mexico, Hawaii, Ohio, California, and elsewhere. [W]e think that the evidence canvassed thus far suffices to show that, in government contracting, the risk of quid pro quo corruption and its appearance, and of interference with merit-based administration, has not dissipated. Taken together, the record offers every reason to believe that, if the dam barring contributions were broken, more money in exchange for contracts would flow through the same channels already on display.”
  4. Significant change in government contracting: “[P]erhaps the most relevant change in government contracting over the past several decades has been the enormous increase in the government’s reliance on contractors to do work previously performed by employees. . . . If anything, that shift has only strengthened the original rationales for the contractor contribution ban by increasing the number of potential targets of corruption and coercion — targets who do not have the merit system protections available to government employees.”
  5. Different rules for federal employers vs contractors: “Increased reliance on individual contractors — particularly retirees such as Brown and Miller — also raises a concern that some former federal employees may unwittingly violate § 30119 because they are unaware that they have become subject to a different set of restrictions as contractors. However, as FEC counsel advised the court, there is no criminal violation unless the individual knows his or her conduct violates the law.”
  6. Corporations vs individual contractors: “The plaintiffs also question whether there is sufficient evidence of corruption or coercion specifically with respect to individual contractors, as compared to those organized as corporations or other kinds of firms. It is true that most of the examples set forth [earlier in our opinion] above involve firms. We see no reason, however, to believe that the motivations for corruption and coercion exhibited in those examples are inapplicable in the case of individual contractors.”
  7. Two justifications: “Our historical review makes clear that the two Court-approved justifications for limitations on campaign activities — to protect against quid pro quo corruption and its appearance, and to protect merit-based public administration — were the justifications that lay behind the contractor contribution statute.”
  8. “Closely drawn” requirement: “[T]he point of the ‘closely drawn’ test is that “‘[e]ven a significant interference with protected rights of political association may be sustained if the State demonstrates a sufficiently important interest and employs means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms.’” [citation] And we conclude that the ban at issue here is permissible in the circumstances that we address in this opinion: a regulation that bars only campaign contributions and that is imposed only on government contractors. . . . We do not discount the possibility that Congress could have narrowed its aim even further, targeting only certain specific kinds of government contracting or doing so only during specific periods. But as the Court has made clear, ‘most problems arise in greater and lesser gradations, and the First Amendment does not confine a State to addressing evils in their most acute form.'”
  9. Underinclusiveness: “We conclude that the contractor contribution ban is not fatally underinclusive. There is no doubt that ‘the proffered state interest actually underlies the law,” and that it can “fairly be said” that the statute “advance[s] a[] genuinely substantial governmental interest.’ [citations] The plaintiffs may well be right that the ban would be even more effective if it swept in more potential contributors. But §30119 “aims squarely at the conduct most likely to undermine” the important interests that underlie it, and ‘[w]e will not punish [Congress] for leaving open more, rather than fewer, avenues of expression, especially when there is no indication that the selective restriction of speech reflects a pretextual motive.'”

Additional claim: The Court also addressed and rejected the Fifth Amendment equal protection arguments raised by the Plaintiffs.

→ Mootness: “The plaintiffs advise us that both Wagner and Brown have now completed their federal contracts and hence are once again free to make campaign contributions. Brown, at least, has already done so.  Accordingly, Wagner’s and Brown’s claims are moot,” which leaves Plaintiff Jan Miller, whose “contract is ongoing” and therefore “his constitutional claims . . . remain alive.”

→ Reliance on Williams-YuleeThe Chief Judge cited to Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar fifteen times — e.g., “But as the [Williams-Yulee] Court has made clear, ‘most problems arise in greater and lesser gradations, and the First Amendment does not confine a State to addressing evils in their most acute form.'”

The Lawyers & Amici

  • Alan B. Morrison argued the cause for plaintiffs. With him on the briefs was Arthur B. Spitzer
  • Ilya Shapiro and Allen J. Dickerson were on the brief for amici curiae Center for Competitive Politics, et al. in support of plaintiffs.
  • Kevin Deeley, Acting Associate General Counsel, Federal Election Commission, argued the cause for defendant. With him on the briefs were Harry J. Summers, Assistant General Counsel, and Holly J. Baker and Seth E. Nesin, Attorneys.
  • J. Gerald Hebert, Scott L. Nelson, Fred Wertheimer, and Donald J. Simon were on the brief for amici curiae Campaign Legal Center, et al. in support of defendant.

* * *  *

Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison

Liberal & libertarian lawyers challenge contractor law

Alan Morrison, a seasoned appellate advocate and law professor, is known as a liberal. In 1971, for example, he worked with Ralph Nader to cofound the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the litigation arm of the famed consumer advocacy organization. In that capacity, he was the lawyer who successfully argued Virginia Pharmacy Bd. v. Virginia Consumer Council (1976), which recognized First Amendment protection for certain kinds of commercial speech (in that case for a non-profit corporate advocacy group).

In Wagner v. FEC he was co-counsel with Arthur B. Spitzer of the ACLU in challenging a little known section of the Federal Election Campaign Act that provided: “[A]ny person who is negotiating for, or performing under, a contract with the federal government is banned from making a contribution to a political party, committee, or candidate for federal office.” In their brief to the Court of Appeals  Morrison and Spitzer argued that the three plaintiffs were prevented from making their intended campaign contributions. “One of the plaintiffs,” they noted, “is a law professor who had a contract to do a study for the Administrative Conference of the United States; the other two are retired federal employees who continue to work for their former agency on a contract basis. Unlike every other U.S. citizen who does not have a federal contract, they are forbidden by [federal law] from making a contribution of even $1 to any federal candidate, political party, or political committee.” Such a law, Morrison and Spitzer maintained, violated both the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment and the First Amendment. A lower court denied those claims, whereupon review was sought in the court of appeals. Yesterday, their hopes were dashed by a 10-0 vote.

Kevin Deeley, Acting FEC Associate General Counsel

Kevin Deeley, Acting FEC Associate General Counsel

“We are disappointed,” Morrison e-mailed me, “in the result and in the failure of the Court to appreciate the unnecessarily broad reach of the total ban on individual contractors such as these plaintiffs from making any contributions in a federal election. We were surprised at the more than dozen favorable citations to McCutcheon v. FEC, a 2014 case in which another over-broad contribution law was struck down by the Supreme Court as not being closely drawn. Even more difficult to understand were the similar number of citations to the 5-4 ruling Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, in which the candidate for judicial office was only precluded from making personal solicitations for campaign funds, while retaining the full ability to raise money through a separate committee.  Most difficult of all to accept is that the court of appeals saw nothing amiss with the law that allows corporate contractors, their officers, directors and shareholders to make contributions within the limits of the law, but denied these individual contractors a similar opportunity.”

Morrison and Spitzer received some help by way of an amicus brief submitted on their clients’ behalf by the Center for Competitive Politics and the Cato Institute. “This case presents an unusual question,” wrote Allen Dickerson for the Center and Institute (Cato’s Ilya Shapiro was co-counsel on the brief.)  “While suits challenging limits on political contributions are familiar, the statute at issue here completely prohibits a broad group of private, individual citizens from making any contribution. Such sweeping prohibitions are seldom enacted, and courts have rarely assessed their constitutionality. Nevertheless, the limited pronouncements made by the Supreme Court on the subject suggest that strict scrutiny is the appropriate standard of review in this instance” and that the appellants should, therefore, prevail.”  They did not.

Ilya Shapiro

Ilya Shapiro

Here is how Ilya Shapiro summed up his response to the Wagner decision: “This is a fascinating and fairly technical opinion, ultimately disappointing to those like me who supported the challenge but probably not one that will have repercussions beyond politically minded contractors. Nobody short of Justice Hugo Black has argued that the First Amendment is absolute — and while the D.C. Circuit rejected the subtle arguments made against the ban on contractor contributions, this is an argument over line-drawing rather than first principles. I still think that the ban is overbroad and that the government should have to prove that its targeted class of people is somehow too dangerous to be allowed to participate in the political process (and also that the ban applies only to that set of uniquely dangerous people). But the court disagreed — unanimously, which was the real surprise here and will alas lessen the Supreme Court’s appetite to hear the case. On the bright side, contractors’ rights to speak independently, through SuperPACs and otherwise, are unaffected; while the court didn’t reach that issue, the government is clearly much less justified in regulating that space.”

The Ramifications of Wagner: 

Over at his own blog, Lyle Denniston thinks Wagner could have important legal/political ramifications on “two other potential campaign law controversies”:

  1. “The first of those possible changes has been under study by President Obama and his White House aides for some time: a plan to issue a presidential order to force business firms doing business with the federal government to disclose publicly all of their political activity.  Although contractors are banned from making direct political contributions to candidates or campaign organizations, they may channel money into politics in other ways.” [ See Daniel I. Weiner, Lawrence Norden & Brent Ferguson, “Requiring Government Contractors to Disclose Political Spending,” Brennan Center for Justice ]
  2. “The second possible revision was a study by the Internal Revenue Service — now suspended, perhaps for an indefinite period, because of political opposition — to revise the rules on eligibility fo tax-exempt status of private groups that are active in funding federal election campaigns. Current IRS rules allow many such groups to gain tax-exempt status on the theory that they are doing ‘charitable’ work. The IRS had draft plans to severely restrict that status for such groups.”

Professor David Skover, co-author of When Money Speaks: The McCutcheon Decision, Campaign Finance Laws, and the First Amendment (2014), had this to say about the Wagner ruling:

Considering the elimination of all issues involving independent expenditures, the ruling in this case is not surprising. Despite some obvious differences between the Hatch Act and the law challenged here, a First Amendment victory would have put into question the continuing viability of the Hatch Act and Letter Carriers, and that the Circuit Court judges were clearly unwilling to do.

See also: Charles Tiefer, “Today’s Wagner Decision Encourages an Obama Order on Campaign Contributions by Federal Contractors,” Forbes, July 7, 2015

Newseum Releases 2015 State of the First Amendment Report Read More


FAC 5 (First Amendment Conversations) Madison Unplugged: A Candid Q&A with Burt Neuborne about Law, Life & His Latest Book  

I have spent a lifetime fighting for a very broad First Amendment, keeping the government out of the First Amendment. But I have also said that there is a terrible price that one pays for that. — Burt  Neuborne, “The Open Mind” with Richard D. Heffner, January 16, 1997

He is not a pause-button sort of guy / he is not one to vanish into the void / he is not a fellow you forget / and he is never one to forsake a debate or turn down a chance to raise a rebellious lance. He is animated / calibrated / cultivated / complicated / and always opinionated. He is Bill Brennan on overdrive . . . and then some!

Yes, he is Burt Neuborne, the Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties at New York University Law School. And he has a new book (Madison’s Music: On Reading the First Amendment), about which I will soon say more — but first a few biographical notes, if only to set the stage for the Madisonian music to come.

* * * *

Young Neuborne, HLS 1962

Young Neuborne, HLS 1962

After graduating from Cornell University in 1961, Neuborne studied constitutional law at Harvard under Albert Sacks and had Henry Hart for federal courts. He took a seminar in English Legal History from Samuel Thorne. His Harvard Law School classmates included Michael BoudinStephen BreyerBert Rein, and Patricia Schroeder. Given his interests in the law at that time, it seemed that young Burt Neuborne was destined to be either a public-interest lawyer or a professor. As it turned out, he became both, but it didn’t start out that way.

Had Fortuna not intervened, Neuborne might have continued to be an estate-planning lawyer for the well-heeled of the Eastern corridor. That, at least, is how things looked a half-century or so ago for the young Harvard graduate: “I went to Wall Street for three years after graduation, at a small blue chip firm, Casey, Lane & Mittendorf. [From 1964-1967] I specialized in estate planning for the ultra-rich.” That brand of life-in-the-law was not, however, meant to be his calling. His life-change was the child of chance: “My big break came when a lawyer for the NYCLU transferred into my Army Reserve unit. When a job opened up at NYCLU, I went for it, although my father-in-law almost killed me.” Thankfully, his father-in-law’s homicidal tendencies abated, and with that twist of fate Burt Neuborne’s career traveled along a far different track, one in civil liberties law.

Thus did things begin. And when they did he quickly found himself working in the shadow of some of the ACLU’s brightest lights: “In those days,” he told Joseph Berger, “the NYCLU and ACLU were both located in a building in the Flatiron district honeycombed with left-wing organizations. Aryeh Neier was the NYCLU director. Ira Glasser was associate director. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a director of the ACLU’s women’s rights project. ‘By the second day I knew this was what I was going to do,’ said Neuborne.” Between 1967 and 1973, Neuborne first worked as staff counsel for the NYCLU and thereafter as the ACLU’s assistant legal director. Later, he served as the National Legal Director of the ACLU from 1981-86.

“I verge on the obsessive,” he once said. How very true.

Burt Neuborne is a scholar / activist / teacher / author / litigator / and one-time actor . . . and rather hyper and quite self-motivated. He has done much and is committed to doing yet more. The Bronx-born lawyer has argued several Supreme Court cases, including Clark v. Community ore for Creative Non-Violence (1984) (the case of the homeless who wanted to sleep in Lafayette Park to protest their plight). Though he lost in the High Court (7-2), earlier he managed to win the Clark case by a 6-5 en banc vote in the DC Circuit, with then Judge Ruth Ginsburg casting the swing vote (though she found “the case close and difficult”).

Neuborne was the founding Legal Director of the Brennan Center, which he oversaw from 1995-2007. Much of  its focus, then and now, relates to efforts to reinforce American democracy and secure campaign finance reform. During the late 1990s, Neuborne authored Building a Better Democracy: Reflections on Money, Politics and Free Speech (Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 1999). Consistent with that, the Center has pursued a constitutional course (see, e.g., here, herehere and here) in tune with what Neuborne argued in Nixon v. Shrink (2000) when he opposed the First Amendment claim raised in that campaign finance case. To the same effect, he filed amicus briefs in opposition to those of the ACLU in the following cases:

More recently, he filed an amicus brief in Williams-Yulee v. Florida State Bar on behalf of himself and three other “past leaders of the ACLU” — this time he was on the winning side thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts’ unexpected vote. And Neuborne has debated Floyd Abrams on the pages of The Nation (2011), this on the topic of the legitimacy of Citizens United. (See also here for  video of Intelligence Squared debate with Floyd Abrams and Nadine Strossen).

* * *  *

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 10.30.38 PMFebruary 17, 2015 – 6:00 p.m, New York University Law School, Vanderbilt Hall: It was one of the high points in his long and diverse career. It was the Inaugural Lecture of the Norman Dorsen Professorship in Civil Liberties, and the all-smiling Burt Neuborne was the one to give that lecture named after his long-time friend (video here). In the course of that distinguished lecture, Neuborne admitted: “I have to confess . . . , I signed the [ACLU] brief in Buckley v. Valeo” (1976). Before anyone had a chance to gasp, however, he changed gears and branded his earlier action as a mistake. And then with his characteristic bravado, he added: “Today we live under an imperial seven-word free speech clause that redoubles its deregulatory efforts long after it has lost sight of its Madisonian goals.”

There is, of course, more to the First Amendment story of this man who has been a force in our free-speech world and will likely continue to be one. But my biographical sketch ends here, save for one more comment.

Bottom line: Make of Burt Neuborne what you will — admire him or abhor him — but don’t ignore him, for his roller-coaster-of-a-life-ride has yet to run its daring and twisting course.


See here re SCOTUSblog six-part video interview series with Neuborne.

→ See here for curriculum vitae

                           → SeeJustice Sotomayor joins in discussion of Burt Neuborne’s New Book,”                                                      First Amendment News/Concurring Opinions,  March 25, 2015


The First Amendment is about making democracy work. — Burt Neuborne (Oct. 2014)

Question: The cover of your book has a photo of an 1816 painting of James Madison by John Vanderlyn (1775-Unknown1852). The image on your book, however, cuts off the top of Madison’s face so that his eyes are hidden. When you first saw a mockup of the jacket, did that fact catch your eye? If so, what did (or now, what do) you make of it?

Neuborne: I liked the veiled and somewhat mysterious image. It reinforces my sense of how difficult it is to recapture the past.

Question: In many ways, Madison’s Music: On Reading the First Amendment (New York University Press, 2015, 272 pp.) is unconventional, starting with its touching full-page dedication to your Father (“Odysseus the Tailor”) / to the poetic cast of the first chapter with a nod to Wallace Stevens / to the textual analysis that informs your theoretical arguments concerning democratic government / to the various historical and conceptual narratives that both challenged and inspired Madison / to the book’s ending which comes full circle with poetic nuance.

Why did you elect to approach your subject with literary and artistic flare rather than by way of a more traditional approach? Read More


FAN 58.1 (First Amendment News) Alan Morrison, “Williams-Yulee – The ruling with no real-world impact”

My friend Alan Morrison recently sent me a few short observations he had concerning the new ruling in Williams-Yulle v. Florida State Bar. I thought his comments might be of some interest to FAN readers.

Alan is the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at George Washington Law School and has argued twenty cases in the Supreme Court, including Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (1976) in which he prevailed.  

* * * * *

This was a case that never should have happened. I say this for two reasons, both of which support the proposition that it will not have much impact in judicial elections.

Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison

First, one part of petitioner’s original state law defense was that she did not think that the ban on candidate solicitation applied because the Florida rule kicks in only when there are adverse candidates and the incumbent had not yet decided to run again.

Second, the ban only applied if the candidate “personally solicit[ed]” contributions, and most people would not think that a mass mailing and a posting on a website would fall under that ban, especially because the Florida solicitation Rule 4-7.18 (a)(1) expressly distinguishes in person from written communications.

Those “mistakes” are not legal excuses under the law. Nonetheless, they do show that this was not a test case because if one wanted a test case, no such defenses would have been raised. They also suggest that the Florida bar should have simply given petitioner a warning and never filed formal charges against her.

In terms of its real-world impact, the Florida law expressly allows a candidate’s committee to do what petitioner did here and much more. Thus, why would anyone who understands the breadth of the law try an end run? In other words, why take the risk that Ms. Williams-Yulee did when there is a much easier and far safer way to secure campaign cash? The more significant issue, and the one on which the majority of the amicus briefs supporting Florida focused, is whether direct in-person solicitation of contributions violated the First Amendment. Now that written mass mailings and websites from the candidate and not the committee can be proscribed, the in person solicitation ban is plainly constitutional, although one wonders if it would be applied to family members, law partners or college roommates – assuming that the Bar found out about such a case and were silly enough to bring it.

In short, Williams-Yulee is likely to be a one-off decision that will eliminate almost no solicitations that any real candidate, let alone a sitting judge, will want to make in any state with a rule like Florida’s. Thus, aside from not clearing petitioner’s reputation, the decision will not cut back on much in the way of either solicitation or other communication about judicial candidates, meaning that the practical damage to the First Amendment, if any, will be quite modest. Now everything will be funneled through a candidate’s committee, which everyone will understand is really just the judge or lawyer-candidate under an authorized cover.