Alliance battle aired in court
After hearing oral arguments Tuesday, Colorado’s highest court will now determine if the state’s campaign-finance statute provides a legal loophole for certain groups to withhold the names of its contributors.
At the center of the debate is local political group Common Sense Alliance. The state’s Supreme Court justices heard arguments yesterday over whether the group broke the law when it refused to disclose its contributors and expenditures during last November’s election.
Attorneys for both the state and Common Sense Alliance offered their positions yesterday, but it was questions asked by the justices that revealed the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s case.
The justices must decide whether or not Common Sense Alliance is an “issue committee” and therefore subject to the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act.
According to state campaign-finance laws, an issue committee is an “affiliation of two or more persons who associate themselves for the purpose of accepting contributions and making expenditures to support or oppose a ballot issue or ballot question.”
Prior to last year’s election in Pitkin County, Common Sense Alliance accepted contributions to campaign against three ballot questions regarding a valleywide train system, but refused to disclose all of its contributors and expenditures.
The Alliance conceded that before the November election it may have functioned as an issue committee. But the group steadfastly contends that it should not be defined as an issue committee because it was formed before its involvement in the election.
Common Sense Alliance attorney Ed Ramey argued that the “plain language” of the statute does not allow an organization to “evolve in and out of issue committee status.” If a group “at its genesis” is not an issue committee, Ramey contended, it should never be defined as one because of its activities during a certain period of time.
Justice Gregory Scott asked Ramey if, for instance, Coors decided to stop selling beer and decided to focus its attention solely on ballot initiatives, should Coors be exempt from the disclosure laws?
Ramey responded, “Yes. It’s not covered because the organization was formed for another purpose. … The pertinent issue today is that the Fair Campaign Practices Act, for whatever reason, the drafters chose to excise the language [that would have required disclosure.]”
Justice Scott, however, did not seem satisfied with Ramey’s answer. He said that the intent of the regulation and intent of Colorado voters who approved the statute should supersede the letter of the law.
“It seems the purpose is very straight forward. Voters wanted to know who is influencing the public vote,” Justice Scott said.
Deputy Attorney General Maurice Knaizer, arguing for the state on behalf of the original complaint filed in Pitkin County, agreed with Scott.
“The state’s position is that an issue committee is an issue committee when it decides to accept contributions and spends money on ballot questions,” Knaizer said. “The overall tenure when the statute was passed was that money is corrupting the system. It was very clear that voters were dissatisfied with the influence of money in elections.”
But Knaizer, in turn, was stumped by Justice Nancy Rice’s inquiries about when a group that has a broader purpose than campaigning on ballot initiatives should disclose its contributors.
Using the Sierra Club as an example, she asked Knaizer what should happen if a person doesn’t earmark a donation for use on a ballot question and the club decides to use a portion to take issue with the state’s pig-farming initiative. Should the contributor’s name be reported even if the contributor simply gave money for a group “to do with as they will?”
Knaizer said the expenditure should be reported, but didn’t have a definitive recommendation on if the contributor should also be revealed.
After the hearing, Jeffrey Evans, spokesman for the Alliance, said the fight is about protecting the group’s constitutional rights. And if the justices decide the take a broad interpretation of the campaign law, the case will be appealed to federal court where he’ll “attempt to get the whole law thrown out instead of just excising part of it.”
Pitkin County attorney John Ely, however, said the matter is about a voter’s rights.
“The reality in this world is that elections can be bought and the only way to combat that is through information [that says] here’s the guy who wants you to vote this way. That’s the only way you can make an informed decision,” Ely said.
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