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Judge Issues Split Ruling on Maine's Campaign Finance Disclosure Laws
08/19/2010   Reported By: Susan Sharon

A federal judge in Maine has upheld most of the state's reporting regulations governing political action committees. But the judge ruled that the state's standard applying to PAC expenditures made for the purpose of influencing elections is "unconstitutionally vague." He also found that a regulation requiring the reporting of expenditures over $250 dollars in 24 hours "overly burdensome." The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by the National Organization for Marriage.

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The New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage has sought to prevent the Maine Ethics Commission from forcing it to disclose names of donors who gave nearly $2 million to the committee working to defeat Maine's same sex-marriage law last year. That issue is still pending in the court.

This latest ruling applies to NOM's other potential interest and a sidebar to the original lawsuit: spending money for candidates in future Maine political races. The group had argued that Maine laws governing PAC definitions, independent campaign expenditures and other disclaimer requirements are unconstitutionally vague and overbroad and chill NOM's speech. Maine's Attorney General contends that the laws give voters necessary information to evaluate the content and credibility of political messages.

In his 37-page order, U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby summed up the issue this way: "This case pits an advocacy organization's First Amendment right to engage in political speech free of regulation against the voting public's right to know who is speaking about the candidates for state and local office. It comes in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether."

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, says the ruling is, in large part, a win for the state's Clean Elections Law. "The court has upheld the whole notion of what is a PAC, and has found that PAC reporting is not overly burdensome and it is constitutional. So, that's good news from the standpoint of informing the public about who's influencing candidate elections in Maine."

The court also upheld independent expenditure reporting, but took issue with the schedule of the reporting, finding that timetables for reporting expenditures within 24 hours too burdensome, except in the last two weeks before an election.
"So the commission is still studying the decision," Wayne says. "But the Commission may need to look at a different filing schedule for independent expenditures this year."

Calls to the National Organization for Marriage were not returned by airtime. But Anne Luther of the group Maine Citizens for Clean Elections is pleased with the court's ruling.

"Our first reading of it is that this is 95 percent a vindication of Maine's PAC reporting laws; that this is by and large upholding our reporting and disclosure laws. It's entirely constitutional," Luther says. "The judge carved out two very, very narrow exceptions, one of which may be able to be handled very easily by additional rule-making but these are very very narrow exceptions that leave the vast majority of our PAC reporting for this election coming up entirely intact."

Though the judge found that the Maine election law standard applying to PAC expenditures "trying to influence" or "to influence in any way" an election is unconstitutionally broad, Luther points out that he left intact other language in the PAC definition. "Now that leaves intact 'supporting, opposing' and all the other ways you may participate in an election and he struck only that language 'influencing in any way', so the rest of the definition of a PAC stands."

According to the judge's order, NOM has not identified any specific candidate it will support or oppose in Maine and has not budgeted any money for the upcoming elections.



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