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Behind The Supreme Court's Ruling That Non-Profits Don't Need To Name Large Donors

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court today sided with rich donors and their desire to remain anonymous. By a 6-3 vote along ideological lines, the court struck down a California law requiring nonprofits to file a list of their large donors with the state. The court said the law subjected donors to potential harassment, chilling their speech in violation of the First Amendment. NPR's Domenico Montanaro joins us to explain the ruling. Hi there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What were the details of this case?

MONTANARO: Well, at issue here was a California law. It's similar to laws in other states. It requires tax-exempt charities or nonprofits to file a list of their large donors, anyone who gives over $5,000. It's the same as what these groups would provide to the IRS every year. Now, some of these groups use this status as a way to influence politics, and California wanted to crack down on the prevalence of some of these so-called dark money groups by following the money and looking for malfeasance and other problems. But because of these groups' statuses under the law, the names of the donors are supposed to remain private.

The problem is that California at one point inadvertently made the names public, and that led the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a group founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, to bring the case to court, and others joined them. They said that the risk of a leak, intentional or not, would create a, quote, "chilling effect" on donors and has subjected them to threats and harassment. The court agreed and said California's law violated these donors' First Amendment freedom of association right.

SHAPIRO: And what has the reaction been so far today?

MONTANARO: Well, you can imagine the reaction has largely fallen along partisan lines but not entirely. You know, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, called it a dark, dark day for democracy. He referred to the Supreme Court as the court that dark money built. That's a callback to the court's Citizens United decision, which largely took away restrictions from corporations being involved in elections.

On the other hand, obviously, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian conservative law firm that was also party to this case, applauded the court's decision. But it's also notable that groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Council on American-Islamic Relations praised the decision, too. The argument before the court, in fact, rested on a 1958 Supreme Court decision that struck down an Alabama law that required the NAACP to publicly disclose its membership list. CAIR noted that governments can sometimes, quote, "improperly use bulk collection of data to target disfavored minorities."

SHAPIRO: This obviously has implications beyond this one California law. Tell us what the broader repercussions might be.

MONTANARO: Well, absolutely. One major piece of this, first of all, is in the states and how they regulate charities and nonprofits to try to root out wrongdoing, self-dealing and other problems. It was already a pretty tough task. California alone has about 115,000 of these kinds of groups, and this decision makes it even harder. More broadly, there are now questions about what it will mean for campaign finance laws. Take a listen to Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California Irvine - how he put it.

RICK HASEN: I think it calls into question both campaign disclosure laws as well as campaign contribution laws. It's going to be much harder for states and Congress to justify some of their campaign disclosure rules and campaign contribution rules.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, this case in and of itself doesn't affect how money is raised for elections. But alarm bells are being run by pro-disclosure watch groups - watchdog groups. In dissent, by the way, Justice Sonia Sotomayor says the ruling marks reporting and disclosure requirements with a bull's-eye. The big question here is, what does the court - what do the court's conservatives do if a case is brought that challenges the constitutionality of federal and state campaign finance disclosure laws?

SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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