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Conservative justices reject Calif. law on donor transparency

California wanted a mechanism to detect charities that might try to commit financial fraud. The Supreme Court's conservative majority didn't care.
Image: The Supreme Court bench, 2016.
The Supreme Court bench, 2016.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

Headed into this morning, there were only two cases remaining at the U.S. Supreme Court, and both related to elections and democracy. In the first ruling, the high court's conservative majority did new damage to the Voting Rights Act, ruling in support of Republican voting restrictions.

And in the second, those same justices uprooted a modest campaign-finance transparency law.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that charities cannot be compelled to tell state regulators the names of their biggest donors, a requirement that some charitable organizations said would chill contributions.

Officials in California created a state law requiring non-profits to disclose their most generous financial supporters in an annual filing to the state attorney general's office. The stated goal was simple: California wanted a mechanism to detect charities that might try to commit financial fraud.

For some on the right, even this small amount of transparency was too much. The Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity and the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Christian legal organization, filed suit, insisting they had the right to keep their major donors hidden, even from the state AG's office.

The state prevailed in the lower courts, but in Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta, the Supreme Court's conservative majority didn't care. As was the case in today's other ruling, the ideological split was predicted long before the ruling was issued: Justices Alito, Roberts, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett were in the majority, while Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor dissented.

A New York Times report this morning added that in the context of elections, the Supreme Court has recently ruled in support of disclosure laws: "In the Citizens United campaign finance decision in 2010, the court upheld the disclosure requirements before it by an 8-to-1 vote. In a second 8-to-1 decision that year, Doe v. Reed, the court ruled that people who sign petitions to put referendums on state ballots do not have a general right under the First Amendment to keep their names secret."

But for non-profits, the conservative bloc of justices decided even a modest amount of disclosure cannot stand.

Reflecting on the one-two punch of this morning's rulings, E.J. Dionne added, "The six right-wing justices just made the case for Court enlargement with a clarity that even the most eloquent advocates of adding justices in response to conservative court-packing could never muster on their own. These decisions have made our country less democratic."