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US Supreme Court lets R.I. election finance disclosure law stand

“An informed electorate is integral to our democracy,” Attorney General Neronha said, “and the court’s action sends a strong message in support of that principle.”

People stand on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.Mariam Zuhaib/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — The US Supreme Court declined to review a federal appellate court decision that affirmed the constitutionality of Rhode Island’s election finance disclosure law.

Rhode Island enacted the Independent Expenditures and Electioneering Communications Act in 2012 in response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited amounts on elections.

Two conservative groups, the Gaspee Project and the Illinois Opportunity Project, challenged the constitutionality of the Rhode Island law. The groups claimed the act, which requires disclosures and disclaimers for independent expenditures or electioneering communications, violates the First Amendment and infringes on rights of privacy and association.


But the Boston-based US First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the Rhode Island law. “Mindful that a well-informed electorate is as vital to the survival of a democracy as air is to the survival of human life, we hold that the challenged provisions of the act bear a substantial relation to a sufficiently important governmental interest and are narrowly tailored enough to withstand exacting scrutiny,” Judge Bruce M. Selya wrote.

And now the Supreme Court has denied a petition to hear the case.

“State campaign and election finance laws exist for a reason: to inform Rhode Islanders of the sources of financial support, directly or indirectly, for candidates for public office,” Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said Monday.

“Such information is critical to voters evaluating the messaging they are subjected to by those spending significant sums of money to influence their decisions,” he said. “An informed electorate is integral to our democracy, and the court’s action sends a strong message in support of that principle.”

Daniel Suhr, managing attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, which represented the plaintiffs, said, “We are disappointed by the result and will continue to fight for free speech.”


The Supreme Court’s decision not to review a case never reflects the court’s view of the merits of the case, Suhr said. “These laws are popping up in more and more states, and we will continue to challenge them to bring this issue back in front of the court,” he said.

John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, hailed the Supreme Court decision saying, “It’s good news for Rhode Island because it means that this fall Rhode Islanders will know the sources of money trying to influence their voters.”

Marion described the 2012 Rhode Island law as “groundbreaking,” saying it was modeled after the proposed “DISCLOSE Act” introduced by US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat. The DISCLOSE Act, which has not become law, would require outside political organizations that spend over $10,000 to report that spending to the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours.

The Rhode Island law requires that independent expenditure ads or electioneering communications aired during election cycles must disclose the names of the top five donors to the organization behind the ad. Also, groups making independent expenditures or electioneering communications must file public reports listing donors who gave $1,000 or more.

Marion said the US Supreme Court was closely divided in the Citizens United case, but at the same time, eight of the nine justices upheld disclosure requirements – thereby rejecting the idea that the First Amendment protects the anonymity of donors in independent spending.


“The Supreme Court has historically been very supportive of disclosure of campaign finance as a protection against corruption,” Marion said. “That is why this is important that the law remains strong.”

The Campaign Legal Center served as outside co-counsel along with the attorney general’s office in the Supreme Court proceedings.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.