Monday, February 02, 2009

Judge refuses to shield Prop 8 donors

Excerpts of Prop. 8 campaign can't hide donors' names  by Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Proposition 8 proponents' complaint that a California campaign-finance disclosure law has led to harassment of same-sex marriage opponents failed to sway a federal judge, who refused Thursday to throw out the law or shield donors' names.

"If there ever needs to be sunshine on a particular issue, it's a ballot measure," U.S. District Judge Morrison England said after a one-hour hearing in his Sacramento courtroom.

A lawyer for the Prop. 8 campaign said it would ask an appeals court to modify or overturn the law, which requires disclosure of all contributors of $100 or more.

The federal lawsuit, unrelated to the validity of Prop. 8, was filed Jan. 8 by the ballot measure's sponsoring committee, Protect Marriage. The suit said Internet disclosure of donors' names and other identifying information in state-mandated reports has led to consumer boycotts, picketing and even death threats.

By requiring disclosure, "The government is getting in the middle (of the issue) and saying, 'Here are the people to go after,' " Richard Coleson, a lawyer for the committee, told England.

He argued that the $100 disclosure requirement - adopted by California voters in 1974 - should be struck down, modified to raise the dollar limits, or at least not applied to Prop. 8's contributors. As a first step, Coleson said, the campaign should be exempted from the state's post-election contribution report, due Monday.

Otherwise, he said, in future initiative campaigns "you will have donations dry up, and one side will be able to overcome another by intimidation and not by persuasion."

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld campaign disclosure laws in 1976 but ruled in 1982 that the Socialist Workers Party in Ohio could shield its donors' names because of a history of attacks and reprisals.

Protect Marriage argued that it was entitled to the same exemption because of retaliation against some of its contributors, but lawyers for the state said the two cases weren't comparable. They noted that the Prop. 8 campaign raised nearly $30 million from 36,000 donors.

If the Prop. 8 campaign was exempted from disclosure because of reports of harassments of individual donors, said Deputy Attorney General Zackery Morazzini, the same case could be made for any controversial initiative. Courts would have to "keep the entire California electorate in the dark as to who was funding these ballot measures," he said.

England agreed.

He noted that some of the reprisals reported by the Prop. 8 committee involve legal activities such as boycotts and picketing. Other alleged actions, such as death threats, mailings of white powder and vandalism, may constitute "repugnant and despicable acts" but can be reported to law enforcement, the judge said.

Even if there have been illegal reprisals, that would be insufficient reason to grant a wholesale exemption for a multimillion-dollar initiative campaign, England said. He also rejected the Prop. 8 campaign's argument that the $100 disclosure limit established in 1974 should be increased for inflation, saying some states require reports of contributions as low as $25 and the Supreme Court has never invalidated them.

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