In a ruling that may bode well for the longevity of the campaign finance disclosure law currently being considered by Congress, the Supreme Court today ruled that the First Amendment does not give people a blanket right to keep their political activity under wraps. But the Justices disagreed on the extent to which the First Amendment allows privacy for controversial political activity.
The case, Doe v. Reed, was brought by a group of people who had signed a petition to put a measure on the ballot in Washington that would have voided the state’s domestic partnership laws. Washington’s law says that the names on such petitions have to be publicly available. The group of plaintiffs argued that the exposure of their names would expose them to harassment, therefore violating their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, disagreed that the disclosure law was unconstitutional on its face, but left the door open for the anti-marriage equality petitioners to claim the law was an unfair burden in their specific case.
The spread of the justices’ opinions on the specific case of Protect Marriage Washington shows their ideological differences on the subject—and could shed light on what will happen if the Court considers something like the DISCLOSE Act.
Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog explains:
There were several separate opinions. Justice Alito wrote a separate concurrence that is quite sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ as-applied challenge on remand. Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, that is very doubtful about that challenge. Justice Stevens also wrote his own concurring opinion, joined by Justice Breyer, to make the same point, albeit perhaps not as strongly, while Justice Breyer wrote a separate concurring opinion indicating that he doesn’t think that Justice Stevens’ opinion is inconsistent with the Chief Justice’s opinion. Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion which takes the position that such a First Amendment claim could never prevail. Justice Thomas was the only dissenter; he would have held that the plaintiffs prevailed on their broad facial challenge to the disclosure provision.
The plaintiffs, having lost their broad facial claim, thus also face significant difficulty in prevailing in their remaining challenge to the disclosure of their identities with respect to this specific referendum. Justices Thomas and Alito are obviously sympathetic to that claim. But five Justices – a majority of the Court – take the opposite view; Justice Scalia rejects it outright and the four more liberal members of the Court express significant doubts about the claim’s viability.
Rachel wrote earlier today about Justice Scalia’s vocal support for transparency laws, and his opinion in Doe v. Reed confirms that he walks his talk. As Goldstein calculates, if a campaign finance disclosure law comes before the Supreme Court, Scalia’s vote could break up the Citizens United majority and shift the Court’s majority toward disclosure and transparency.