Supreme Court Won’t Disturb Ruling Unmasking Dark Money Donors

WASHINGTON — In a victory for advocates of campaign finance transparency, the Supreme Court refused on Tuesday to block a trial judge’s ruling that required some nonprofit groups that place political advertisements to disclose the names of their contributors.

The Supreme Court’s brief order gave no reasons and did not note any dissenting votes. The order vacated an earlier one entered on Saturday by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. that temporarily blocked the ruling.

That ruling, issued last month by Judge Beryl A. Howell of the Federal District Court in Washington, required many nonprofit groups that placed advertisements supporting or opposing political candidates to disclose the identities of donors who had contributed more than $200. Before the ruling, such groups could generally shield their donors from public scrutiny.

The case was brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, a watchdog group. It sued the Federal Election Commission and Crossroads GPS, a conservative group. Judge Howell struck down a federal regulation that had effectively allowed secret contributions, saying it conflicted with a federal statute.

A federal appeals court will hear an appeal of Judge Howell’s ruling, but no decision is expected until after the elections in November. That means many groups placing campaign advertisements will have to disclose their donors in the meantime.

“This is a great day for transparency and democracy,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of the watchdog group. “Three courts, including the Supreme Court, have now rejected Crossroads’ arguments for a stay, meaning we’re about to know a lot more about who is funding our elections.”

The ruling applies to groups like social welfare and business organizations that do not register as political committees with the election commission. The commission had required disclosure of donors only when they contributed money for specific advertisements.

That allowed them to evade statutory disclosure requirements, Judge Howell wrote. “A donor contributing over $200 during a calendar year to a not-political committee for the express purpose of advocating for or against the election of a candidate for federal office, would nonetheless not be identified,” she wrote, “absent the donor’s express agreement that the funds be used for the specific expenditures reported to the F.E.C., even though the donor may otherwise support and in fact contribute for the purpose of funding those expenditures.”

In their emergency application asking the Supreme Court to step in, lawyers for Crossroads GPS urged the justice to let the regulation stand, writing that “there is no compelling reason to hastily throw the clear reporting standards it provides to donors and speakers into confusion just prior to a national election — thereby chilling core First Amendment speech and association.”

In response, lawyers for CREW quoted passages from a Supreme Court decision that favored disclosure of contributions. “The public’s interest in disclosure,” the group wrote, “includes knowing ‘where political campaign money comes from and how it is spent’ in order to know the ‘sources of a candidate’s financial support,’ and deterring actual corruption and avoiding ‘the appearance of corruption by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity.’”