Supreme Court strikes down California's donor disclosure requirement for charities

The court voted 6-3 along ideological lines.

July 1, 2021, 2:30 PM

In a second significant opinion Thursday, the US Supreme Court divided 6-3 along ideological lines to strike down a California law that required charities to privately disclose the identities of major donors to the state attorney general.

State officials had argued that the identities, which not-for-profit charities are allowed to keep secret from the public, would help enforce rules around tax-exempt status and catch potential fraud.

A pair of conservative groups that challenged the requirement -- and backed by the ACLU, NAACP and others -- argued the state was unnecessarily violating the donors' First Amendment right to free association and that prior leaks of the information exposed donors to harassment and attacks.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority, sided with the charities, concluding "the Attorney General's disclosure requirement imposes a widespread burden on donors' associational rights. And this burden cannot be justified on the ground that the regime is narrowly tailored to investigating charitable wrongdoing, or that the state's interest in administrative convenience is sufficiently important."

Justice Roberts wrote that the state did not sufficiently consider alternative means of gathering the information or protecting against fraud. He said the current requirement could create a "chilling effect" on donors because of the state's documented history of leaks of private donor information.

PHOTO: A view of the Supreme Court, June 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
A view of the Supreme Court, June 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, said the charities challenging the rule failed to show any concrete harm by the disclosure requirement.

"The Court jettisons completely the longstanding requirement that plaintiffs demonstrate an actual First Amendment burden," Sotomayor wrote. "It can point to no record evidence demonstrating that the regulation is likely to chill a substantial portion of the donors. These moves are wholly inconsistent with the Court's precedents and our Court's long-held view that disclosure requirements only indirectly burden First Amendment rights."

The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center summed up the impact of this case as relatively limited, if disappointing, to transparency advocates and watchdogs in a statement.

"Wealthy special interests scored a win, albeit a narrow one. We at Campaign Legal Center are disappointed that the majority chose to sidestep established precedent recognizing the important public interests in nonprofit reporting and relatively minimal burdens such reporting imposes. While the standard of review applied by the Court here was unduly skeptical, it is one transparency laws in the electoral context easily meet, limiting the reach of this case. The decision does not call into question the longstanding laws and regulations requiring public disclosure of campaign spending."

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