Fair Courts E-lert: Investigative Report Uncovers Poor Disclosure of Social Welfare Groups’ Donors

November 13, 2013


Investigative Report Uncovers Poor Disclosure of Social Welfare Groups’ Donors
“Secret Persuasion,” a two-part series aired on NPR November 5th and 6th, highlighted how lax disclosure laws allow social welfare groups’ donors to remain anonymous. Incorporated under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, these nonprofit groups are not obligated to disclose their donors when making large contributions to, or in support of, a political campaign; these groups are only required to report their donors when making contributions to one another. Since 2008, NPR and its co-investigator, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), discovered $386 million in transfers between 501(c)(4) organizations. Using disclosure reports from these transfers, NPR and CRP were able to uncover some of the donors behind various 501(c)(4)’s, and, as a result, their contributions to various political campaigns.

The investigative report profiles a group called the Wellspring Committee, which has become a leader in anonymously backing social welfare groups that participate in political campaigns.  Wellspring has raised over $24 million since it was founded in 2008, $16.9 million of which it has donated to other social welfare groups. “One of the interesting things for Wellspring is [that] on all of their filings, they claim that they're not intervening in a political campaign,” said Donald Tobin, a law professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. “But then they give to just huge numbers of organizations that do engage in political campaigns.” In 2010, Wellspring donated to the American Justice Partnership, which ran radio attack ads against Justice Alton Davis, who was running in a special election to retain a Michigan Supreme Court seat to which he had been appointed by the governor. Justice Davis lost his election. “I was well behind the curve,” he said, referring to the outside money that came pouring in to defeat him. “When I look back at the whole deal, I think it was a disgusting exercise.”
Sources: Peter Overby, Viveca Novak, and Robert Maguire, From Social Welfare Groups, A River Of Political Influence, NPR, November 5, 2013; Peter Overby, Viveca Novak, and Robert Maguire, Secret Persuasion: How Big Campaign Donors Stay Anonymous, NPR, November 6, 2013.


U.S. Chamber of Commerce More Prominent in State Courts
A recent Washington Post article details the expanding role of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in state courts. The Chamber increasingly uses amicus briefs to weigh in on court cases, which attorneys for the group say allows them to “raise issues that go beyond the details of the particular case and provide input about related developments in other places.” This year, the Chamber has already filed 25 percent more amicus briefs in state courts than it did in 2012, participating in cases that deal with issues such as wage and hour laws, product liability, and energy and environmental regulation. Lawyers who oppose the Chamber haven’t noticed any impacts as a result of this increase, but Arthur H. Bryant, executive director of Public Justice, says, “It's a very scary and disturbing trend [because]… the vast majority of personal-injury litigation in this country is going on in state courts.” The activities of the Chamber’s litigation center still remain modest compared to its lobbying wing, “but Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue announced at the start of this year that the litigation center would ‘significantly expand’ its work.”
Source: Holly Yeager, U.S. Chamber of Commerce turning more to state courts to press its members’ interests, The Washington Post, November 5, 2013.


New York Voters Reject Proposal to Raise Judicial Retirement Age
In last week’s election, New York voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have raised the retirement age for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals* judges from 70 to 80 years old, reports The New York Times.  The amendment was supported by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who was disappointed by the election results. “We were unable to get a consistent message across that people should be judged on their ability to do the job and not on some outdated conceptions of age,” he said. Governor Andrew Cuomo quietly opposed the amendment, which would have lengthened the terms of two Republican judges, in addition to Judge Lippman’s tenure, giving the governor less of an opportunity to shape the bench. “Opponents of the ballot measure… said the amendment was flawed because it did not cover lower-court judges, who make up three-quarters of the 1,259 jurists in the state. Those judges would still be required to step down at age 70.” Approximately 60 percent of New York voters opposed the proposed amendment.
*In New York, the Court of Appeals is the highest appellate court in the state. The state Supreme Court is the state’s main trial court.
Sources: Fair Courts E-lert: Government Shutdown Hurts Federal Courts, Brennan Center for Justice, October 9, 2013; James C. McKinley, Jr., Plan to Raise Judges’ Retirement Age to 80 Is Rejected, The New York Times, November 6, 2013.


Former California Chief Justice Reflects on Supreme Court Career
Former California chief justice Ronald M. George released an 800-page history last week, reflecting on his long legal career, reports the Los Angeles Times. In his book, which is part of the California Supreme Court Oral History Project, George notes that “he pleaded annually with legislators for money to run the courts, warning the loss of funds would compromise justice.” George often saw the injection of politics or personal matters into budgetary proceedings that could affect the courts. “One legislator refused to support a revenue bond for court construction because his wife had received what he viewed as an excessive fine for making a rolling stop, George recalled. The bond depended on raising fines.” George retired in 2011 after 20 years on the bench, 14 of which were spent as chief justice.
Source: Maura Dolan, Former California chief justice looks back on his days on the bench, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2013.