Article XXVIII

Colorado Republican Party Chair Seeks Exemption to State Campaign Finance Law for “party-sponsored” Independent Expenditure Committee

Colorado Republican Party state chairman Ryan Call is seeking an exemption to state campaign finance rules in order to establish a “party-sponsored” (using the “Republican” party name) “Independent Expenditure Committee” that would not be subject to the contribution limits applying to the party itself.

The Colorado Republican Party, at Chairman Call’s direction, filed a Petition for Declaratory Order last November (essentially, asking for a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in advance) from Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler “requesting confirmation” that the party’s independent expenditure committee  ”may raise funds in any amounts from any source.”  (Petition for Declaratory Order, Introduction)

Following a period allowing public comment to be submitted in writing (see below; with the single exception of former state Republican party attorney John Zakhem, universally opposed to the petition) the Secretary of State’s office held a public hearing on 7 January 2014.

Background and Constitutional/Statutory Framework

Following the passage of Amendment 27 in 2002 (enacted as Article XXVIII, Colorado Constitution), contribution limits have applied to organizations supporting or opposing candidates in state elections – including political parties.  Under current Colorado law, political parties may accept a maximum of $3,400 per year (state, county, local levels combined) in aggregate (total) contributions from any individual – and are prohibited from receiving contributions from corporations or labor organizations (unions).

Independent Expenditure Committees (IECs), a more recent statutory (vs. constitutional) creation, on the other hand, are not subject to contribution limits, and may support or oppose candidates, but only so long as the support and spending are” truly independent and not coordinated with the candidate.”  (cf OGREexposed.org analysis, Colorado GOP seeks approval for new independent expenditure committee)

Colorado Republican Party Petition

Colorado Republican Party State Chair Ryan Call, represented by his law firm partner (and designated party attorney) Richard Westfall, filed a petition seeking the Secretary of State’s advance blessing (via a Declaratory Order) for an entity combining the features of an “independent expenditure committee” (no contribution limits to amount and/or source) with the Republican party label (and, presumably in some form at least, party control) – in many respects, seeking to “have their cake and eat it, too.”

The COGOP advanced the following arguments in support of their petition:

  • Supreme Court precedent affirming the right of political parties to make independent expenditures
  • Colorado’s constitutional/statutory framework is consistent with Supreme Court precedent
    • “Independent expenditures” are allowed so long as there is no coordination
    • “Any person” may make independent expenditures
    • “Independent Expenditure Committees” are not subject to contribution limits or source prohibitions

Additionally, the petition asserted that “the Republican party’s Independent Expenditure Committee will be structured and operated to ensure that no expenditures will be coordinated with candidates.”

Counterarguments to COGOP petition

The COGOP petition spends an inordinate amount of space asserting the right of political parties to make independent expenditures – a fact that is not in dispute.  The party is already able to make independent expenditures without necessarily having to form a separate committee (arguably, this is a default function of party organizations anyway).  The dispute arises from conflating the ability to make independent expenditures with the ability to receive contributions without limit to amount or source that is a special feature of IECs under Colorado law.

Critics from across the political spectrum (from “Colorado Ethics Watch,” a.k.a. CEW, pronouced “sue” – it’s what they do, on the “Left” and OGRE Exposed, on the grassroots “Right”) highlighted the fact that the case law precedent is clear that party organizations are subject to legislation imposing contribution limits:

“While the CRP petition is correct that under federal constitutional law a political party may not be prohibited from making independent expenditures that do not count towards candidate contribution limitations, case law does not support a right for political parties to fund such expenditures with unlimited and unregulated money.”  (CEW opposition statement to petition at 5)

Similarly,

Yes, political parties can constitutionally make unlimited independent expenditures. But this does not free them from contribution limits imposed on them by campaign finance laws. Unfortunately, under current Supreme Court precedent, contribution limits imposed on political parties are still constitutional. … The point is not that contribution limits are a good thing, they are not, but that Chairman Call is not being straightforward when claiming Supreme Court precedent supports what he is trying to do.”  (OGRE Exposed, Response to Ryan Call re: Independent Expenditure Committee, at 2)

Additionally, the COGOP chair’s assertion of “significant structural and operational protections” preventing coordination is risible, as is the very notion that an entity owing its existence to the state party, with the director and management committee appointed personally by the state party chair, would be “independent” in any sense of the word.  Such an entity is almost by definition “pre-coordinated” – although it would not be constrained by party bylaws (bylaws theoretically restricting, for example, the IEC’s ability to spend or promise spending in order to influence primary elections).

Reliance on the enforcement provisions of Rule 1.4 (Coordination) to sanction any such suspected coordination is likewise hollow – since multiple cases have shown that absent an airtight confirmed “smoking gun” to the extent of a notarized confession signed in the perpetrator’s blood in front of multiple witnesses, “coordination” will never be prosecuted.

Secretary of State Hearing, 7 January 2014

Interestingly, all of the above arguments will likely be rendered moot due to a jurisdictional issue raised at the Secretary of State’s Hearing on 7 January.  In order for the Secretary of State to issue a Declaratory Order, the Secretary must first determine if it will resolve the controversy at issue; any Order must terminate the controversy or resolve the issue.

Since Colorado has a system of private party enforcement of campaign finance law – any person may file a Complaint (in this case, against the “party-sponsored” IEC) and any individual donor could also be the subject of a complaint, as could other candidates or candidate committees on whose behalf the IEC makes expenditures – a Declaratory Order could not “resolve the controversy” since it would not be binding on potential Complainants.

Quo Vadis?

Clear The Bench Colorado‘s analysis is that the Secretary of State will not issue a Declaratory Order in favor of the COGOP Chair’s petition, most likely based on jurisdictional grounds, as noted above.  In addition to the jurisdictional reasons, there are multiple substantive issues with the petition’s arguments (which are largely unsupported by a critical reading of applicable case law and constitutional precedent).  From a purely political perspective, a ruling in favor of the petition by the office of Secretary of State Gessler would certainly be seized upon by his political opponents (both intra-party and inter-party) given his current candidacy for governor positions him as a potential beneficiary of IEC spending, despite the fact that he did not participate personally in the hearing (or, likely, the forthcoming ruling).

The Colorado Republican Party could, presumably, still proceed with setting up a “party-sponsored” IEC, but would do so at great risk, both to the party itself and any donor who exceeded the statutory contribution limits (a successful complaint would result in fines and penalties of 2-5 times the amount by which the contribution exceeded the limits). Even a successful defense against a complaint would cost the party tens of thousands in legal fees (on top of the $10,000 reportedly already spent by the Colorado Republicans just to argue the petition – although, since that money is paid directly to the chair’s own law firm, which also pays him a salary, that may be a risk that he personally is willing to take with party funds).

Clear The Bench Colorado generally opposes the imposition of contribution limits or other restrictions on free speech in the civic and political arena (see, Speaking Out on Reforming Colorado’s Campaign Finance Laws) as unconstitutional abridgments of the 1st Amendment; in particular, the excessively complex and convoluted nature of campaign finance laws in Colorado challenge the Constitution, chill free speech, and curtail civic participation.  Any such laws that do remain in effect, however, must be fairly and equitably applied to everyone – with no “special exemptions” for favored entities.  It is our view that the COGOP Chair’s petition is an attempt to create just such a “special exemption” and should be denied.

Read more about the COGOP Chair’s attempt to skirt Colorado Campaign Finance Law

Written comments – Petition for Declaratory Order

Colorado Supreme Court asked by Federal judge to clarify state campaign finance laws

The Colorado Supreme Court has been asked to clarify the “scope and meaning” of Colorado campaign finance laws, in an order issued by a Federal judge earlier this week.  According to a statement issued by the Center for Competitive Politics,

Senior Judge John L. Kane of the United States Court for the District of Colorado asked the state Supreme Court to “provide clear guidance… as to the scope and meaning” of provisions that have been challenged under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The request for clarification to the Colorado Supreme Court was issued due to a lawsuit challenging the state’s campaign finance laws as an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights under the First Amendment.  The case, Coalition for Secular Government v. Gessler, No. 12-cv-1708, was filed in Federal court earlier this year.

Questions certified by the Federal judge (asked of the Colorado Supreme Court for clarification) include:

  •  Does the Colorado Constitution treat money spent on a policy paper, including one that suggests how the reader should vote on a ballot initiative, as the equivalent of money spent on political ads?
  • Does the state constitution entitle policy papers distributed over the internet to be treated in the same way as newspaper and magazine editorials for purposes of campaign finance law?
  • In light of a federal decision declaring certain groups too small to be regulated by the state of Colorado, what is the monetary trigger for an issue committee under the state constitution? Is it the roughly-$1,000 mentioned in the federal opinion? The $3,500 contemplated by CSG? The $200 mentioned in the constitution itself? Or another number altogether?

Colorado’s campaign finance laws are frequently used by well-funded special-interest groups as a tool to suppress political speech by grassroots organizations – facilitated by the odd fact that enforcement of the law is NOT prosecuted by the state, but rather by the individual (or organization) filing the complaint (effectively, it takes lawyers, time, and money to hold violators accountable for breaking the law).

Attempts at reforming Colorado’s campaign finance laws are invariably met with resistance from special-interest groups, many of whom are not subject to the same reporting and disclosure requirements that they support imposing on others.

Fortunately, some have fought for the preservation of political free speech, and have won some hard-fought victories in court.  One such recent court case originating in Colorado, Sampson v. Buescher, resulted in a Federal court (10th Circuit) holding certain sections of Colorado Constitution Article XXVIII in violation of the United States Constitution. Specifically, provisions of Article XXVIII (the $200 trigger on reporting contributions) were held to unduly burden the rights of free association and free speech protected under the 1st Amendment, among our most cherished rights.

The Center for Competitive Politics statement sums it up nicely:

“For years, organizations in Colorado have been unsure how to comply with Colorado’s campaign finance rules, or have been subject to politically-motivated complaints for making minor errors,” CCP Legal Director Allen Dickerson said. “Some choose not to speak at all in the face of this situation. The Colorado Supreme Court now has the option of bringing a measure of predictability to some of the state constitution’s more difficult provisions.”

Our View:

Clarification of the confusing cloud of campaign finance laws in Colorado that challenge the Constitution, chill free speech, and curtail civic participation is not only welcome – it’s long overdue.

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

Speaking Out on Reforming Colorado’s Campaign Finance Laws

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
1st Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified 15 December 1791

Abridging the freedom of speech – particularly political speech – has a long and sordid history, as the ruling ‘Establishment’ or entrenched special interests seek to suppress criticism and competition.

In “modern” and “civilized” times, the tools of repressing political speech have “evolved” from the brute force of physically preventing anyone from speaking out to the more subtle and “sophisticated” methods of legislating limits, building bureaucratic barriers, and piling on paperwork for “permission” in order to exercise what is a fundamental right.

A confusing cloud of campaign finance laws in Colorado challenge the Constitution, chill free speech, and curtail civic participation.

On Thursday December 15th, the office of Colorado Secretary of State held open hearings to receive public testimony (chaired by Secretary of State Scott Gessler) on rules changes oriented towards clarifying and reforming Colorado’s unconstitutional campaign finance laws.

A number of people – both supporting and opposing specific rules changes, and/or speaking out more generally on the topic of the impact of campaign finance laws on political speech and civic participation – submitted written comments, showed up in person to testify, or both.

Curiously, the people supporting the reforms to campaign finance rules largely spoke as individuals or as representatives of small, grassroot organizations, while those opposing the rules reforms almost uniformly represented well-established politically-active special interest groups (see below for list).

A common theme emerged regarding the complexity of existing campaign laws, and the resultant cost, burden and difficulty of compliance.

Some people – such as Colorado state senator John Morse – think that’s just “the price of transparency”:

(Video courtesy of Ari Armstrong of Free Colorado)

Organizations opposing rules changes to reform campaign finance laws at the hearing:

Curiously, none of these politically active organizations – NOT ONE – is subject to the same reporting and disclosure requirements that they support imposing on others.
(NOTE: the state Democrat and Republican parties are subject to some campaign finance reporting and disclosure requirements, but differ in some details)

In fact, the Colorado Statesman profiled some of these groups in a pair of articles last year:

Testifying in favor of rules changes to reform campaign finance laws at the hearing:


Clear The Bench Colorado director Matt Arnold testifies in favor of reforming Colorado campaign laws

The Revised Draft of Proposed Rules is posted on the Secretary of State’s website, along with written comments submitted in support or opposition.  Interested individuals or groups can still submit written comments to the Secretary of State’s office until Friday, 23 December.

Other videos on how Colorado campaign laws adversely impact free speech:

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

Reforming Colorado’s Unconstitutional Campaign Finance Laws

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
1st Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified 15 December 1791

Abridging the freedom of speech – particularly political speech – has a long and sordid history, as the ruling ‘Establishment’ or entrenched special interests seek to suppress criticism and competition.

Techniques have evolved from outright bans, gag orders, and brutal repression to a more subtle and “civilized” approach: suppression by regulation and legal intimidation.

In today’s Colorado, for example, your right to engage in free speech on political issues is not banned - perish the thought! – although to practically and effectively exercise that right, by collecting and spending money to reach a mass audience, you’ll first need to fill out a few forms

Actually, you’ll need to do far more than that.  Under Colorado’s campaign finance regime, if you wish to speak out on issues or questions that may appear on the ballot, you’ll need to form and register an “Issue Committee” – as defined in Colorado Constitution Article XXVIII, § 2(10)(a):

(10) (a) “Issue committee” means any person, other than a natural person, or any group of two or more persons, including natural persons:
(I) That has a major purpose of supporting or opposing any ballot issue or ballot question; or
(II) That has accepted or made contributions or expenditures in excess of two hundred dollars to support or oppose any ballot issue or ballot question.
(b) “Issue committee” does not include political parties, political committees, small donor committees, or candidate committees as otherwise defined in this section.

Colorado’s ‘Campaign Finance Laws’ challenge the Constitution, chill free speech, and curtail civic participation

The amount of paperwork and resources (time and/or money) required in order to simply exercise a fundamental right (freedom of speech) is significant, and itself exerts a chilling effect on civic or political participation.  Individuals and small groups, particularly those becoming active for the first time, face a daunting amount of red tape: establishing and registering a committee, opening a separate bank account, keeping detailed financial records, filing frequent and detailed reports of contributions and expenditures – all under threat of fines and other legal sanctions for mistakes, no matter how minor.

Even if they DO follow the rules to the letter, committees may STILL be forced to defend their right of civic participation in court, thanks to the proliferation of legal attack groups (such as the grossly misnamed “Colorado Ethics Watch” – CEW, pronounced “sue”, it’s what they do) that exist solely for the purpose of harassing and diverting resources from ideologically opposed organizations.  The cost of defending against such attacks is another deterrent to participation.  Even a successful defense can cost tens of thousands, and even defeating an attack so completely without merit (in legalese, a “frivolous, groundless, and vexatious” complaint such as the CEW attack on Clear The Bench Colorado) that the judge takes the rare step of awarding attorneys fees to the defense can divert scarce resources (and take months, if not years, to collect). [Ed. to date, CEW still refuses to pay what they owe to CTBCcontinuing to contest the judgment against them all the way to the Colorado Court of Appeals]

Origins of Colorado’s Campaign Finance Regime

Interestingly, many of these restrictions on freedom of (political) speech are a relatively recent development.  In 2002, as part of the wave of “campaign finance reform” measures that swept in the subsequently-found-unconstitutional McCain-Feingold law on the national scene, Colorado voters were persuaded to vote for Colorado Amendment 27 (which became Colorado Constitution Article XXVIII).

Many of these so-called “campaign finance reform” measures have since been found unconstitutional, as violating First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association – in a word, censorship.  However, until challenged, many of the laws remain on the books – forcing individuals to fight for their fundamental constitutional rights in court.

Constitutional Challenges to Colorado’s Campaign Finance Regime

One such recent court case originating in Colorado, Sampson v. Buescher, resulted in a Federal court (10th Circuit) holding certain sections of Colorado Constitution Article XXVIII in violation of the United States Constitution.  Specifically, provisions of Article XXVIII were held to unduly burden the rights of free association and free speech protected under the 1st Amendment, among our most cherished rights.

The rationale behind Article XXVIII (as Amendment 27) was to reduce “disproportionate influence” over the political process by “large campaign contributions.”  The 10th Circuit held that Colorado’s $200 trigger for requiring committee registration and subsequent disclosure and reporting failed to meet the test of either “large contributions” or “disproportionate influence” that might justify public interest, and was therefore an unconstitutional  burden on the freedoms of speech and association protected under the First Amendment.

Rolling Back the Regime – Restoring Constitutional Protections

In response to the 10th Circuit’s ruling in Sampson v. Buescher, the office of Colorado Secretary of State (beginning under outgoing SOS Buescher, continued and successfully concluded under newly-elected Secretary of State Scott Gessler), pursuant to the Secretary’s constitutional rule-making authority under Article XXVIII, Section 9(1)b, proposed a rules change to raise the registration and reporting threshold for Issue Committees to $5,000 in order to bring Colorado’s requirements in line with the court’s ruling.

Last May, after soliciting and reviewing written comments and holding public hearings,  based on the overwhelming weight of public comment and testimony in favor of raising the registration and reporting threshold, the office of Secretary of State adopted the new rule on 13 May 2011.

Unsurprisingly, the rules change was challenged in court – by the perennial campaign finance attack group “Colorado Ethics Watch” (CEW, pronounced “sue” – it’s what they do), and advocacy group “Common Cause” which despite extensive political participation are not subject to the same financial disclosure and reporting regulations as the groups they attack.

Recently, Denver District Court Judge A. Bruce Jones ruled that Gessler “went beyond his authority” in adopting the rules change (Gessler is appealing).  Judge Jones (who is subject to a retention vote in 2012) had earlier “unloaded on Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler” at the initial hearing on the case – later admitting that he had not yet read the written briefs before issuing his critical remarks.

Pending the appeal, the office of Secretary of State is again holding public hearings (and accepting written comment) on these and other rules changes to Colorado’s campaign finance laws – most of which are oriented towards clarifying, simplifying, and/or reducing the burden on political participation.

The Revised Draft of Proposed Rules is posted on the Secretary of State’s website, along with written comments submitted in support or opposition.

Clear The Bench Colorado submitted a written brief in support of Proposed Rule 4 (clarifying requirements for Issue Committees) and Rule 20 (Redaction of Sensitive Information) and will offer verbal testimony at Thursday’s hearing as well.

(Hearing is scheduled for December 15, 2011 from 9:00AM to 12:00PM in the Blue Spruce Conference Room on the 2nd floor of the Secretary of State’s Office at 1700 Broadway, Denver CO 80290)

Written Comments

Additional commentary on Colorado’s campaign finance regime

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

Colorado’s ‘Campaign Finance Laws’ challenge the Constitution, chill free speech, and curtail civic participation

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
1st Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified 15 December 1791

Ruling elites – be they monarchs or oligarchs, dictators or demagogues, or even elective bodies purporting to represent the will of the people – have long sought to suppress criticism and competition through the use of laws or regulations restricting the right and ability of individuals and groups to organize and speak out effectively.

Techniques have evolved from outright bans and brutal repression to a more subtle approach: suppression by regulation and legal intimidation.

In today’s Colorado, for example, your right to free speech on political issues is not banned - perish the thought! – although to practically and effectively exercise that right, by collecting and spending money to reach a mass audience, you’ll need to fill out a few forms

Actually, you’ll need to do far more than that.  Under Colorado’s campaign finance regime, if you wish to speak out on issues or questions that may appear on the ballot, you’ll need to form and register an “Issue Committee” – as defined in Colorado Constitution Article XXVIII, § 2(10)(a):

(10) (a) “Issue committee” means any person, other than a natural person, or any group of two or more persons, including natural persons:
(I) That has a major purpose of supporting or opposing any ballot issue or ballot question; or
(II) That has accepted or made contributions or expenditures in excess of two hundred dollars to support or oppose any ballot issue or ballot question.
(b) “Issue committee” does not include political parties, political committees, small donor committees, or candidate committees as otherwise defined in this section.

The amount of paperwork and resources (time and/or money) required in order to simply exercise a fundamental right (freedom of speech) is significant, and itself exerts a chilling effect on civic or political participation.  Individuals and small groups, particularly those becoming active for the first time, face a daunting amount of red tape: establishing and registering a committee, opening a separate bank account, keeping detailed financial records, filing frequent and detailed reports of contributions and expenditures – all under threat of fines and other legal sanctions for mistakes, no matter how minor.

Even if they DO follow the rules to the letter, committees may STILL be forced to defend their right of civic participation in court, thanks to the proliferation of legal attack groups (such as the grossly misnamed “Colorado Ethics Watch” – CEW, pronounced “sue”, it’s what they do) that exist solely for the purpose of harassing and diverting resources from ideologically opposed organizations.  The cost of defending against such attacks is another deterrent to participation.  Even a successful defense can cost tens of thousands, and even defeating an attack so completely without merit (in legalese, a “frivolous, groundless, and vexatious” complaint such as the CEW attack on Clear The Bench Colorado) that the judge takes the rare step of awarding attorneys fees to the defense can divert scarce resources (and take months, if not years, to collect). [Ed. to date, CEW still refuses to pay what they owe to CTBC, continuing to contest the judgment against them all the way to the Colorado Court of Appeals]

Origins of Colorado’s Campaign Finance Regime

Interestingly, many of these restrictions on freedom of (political) speech are a relatively recent development.  In 2002, as part of the wave of “campaign finance reform” measures that swept in the subsequently-found-unconstitutional McCain-Feingold law on the national scene, Colorado voters were persuaded to vote for Colorado Amendment 27 (which became Colorado Constitution Article XXVIII).

Many of these so-called “campaign finance reform” measures have since been found unconstitutional, as violating First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association – in a word, censorship.  However, until challenged, many of the laws remain on the books – forcing individuals to fight for their fundamental constitutional rights in court.

Constitutional Challenges to Colorado’s Campaign Finance Regime

One such recent court case originating in Colorado, Sampson v. Buescher, resulted in a Federal court (10th Circuit) holding certain sections of Colorado Constitution Article XXVIII in violation of the United States Constitution.  Specifically, provisions of Article XXVIII were held to unduly burden the rights of free association and free speech protected under the 1st Amendment, among our most cherished rights.

The rationale behind Article XXVIII (as Amendment 27) was to reduce “disproportionate influence” over the political process by “large campaign contributions.”  The 10th Circuit held that Colorado’s $200 trigger for requiring committee registration and subsequent disclosure and reporting failed to meet the test of either “large contributions” or “disproportionate influence” that might justify public interest, and was therefore an unconstitutional  burden on the freedoms of speech and association protected under the First Amendment.

Rolling Back the Regime – Restoring Constitutional Protections

In response to the 10th Circuit’s ruling in Sampson v. Buescher, the office of Colorado Secretary of State (beginning under outgoing SOS Buescher, continued and successfully concluded under newly-elected Secretary of State Scott Gessler), pursuant to the Secretary’s constitutional rule-making authority under Article XXVIII, Section 9(1)b, proposed a rules change to raise the registration and reporting threshold for Issue Committees to $5,000 in order to bring Colorado’s requirements in line with the court’s ruling.

Following a period of soliciting and reviewing written comments on the draft proposed rule, the office of Secretary of State held public hearings to allow concerned citizens and groups to express comments, concerns, questions, and suggestions.

It is interesting to note that of those who submitted written comments, those in favor of the new rule (relaxing the threshold for registering and reporting committee activities) included over a dozen individual citizens, and no special interest groups.  Conversely, those submitting comments against the new rule (advocating for continued imposition of what has been ruled an unconstitutional infringement of free speech) were ALL representatives of special-interest groups and organizations, including:

(The full list of written comments submitted by interested individuals and groups before and after the hearing is available on the Secretary of State’s website)

Also of interest: NONE of the aforementioned special-interest groups, despite their professed zeal for “open, transparent, and accountable” practices including full disclosure and reporting of all contributions and expenditures, make their finances available for public view.  NONE.

Several individual citizens (but only a single representative of the above-listed special-interest groups, Jenny Flanagan of Colorado Common Cause) showed up in person to testify – almost exclusively (one exception) in favor of relaxing the threshold for Issue Committee registration and reporting).  Citizen activist Ari Armstrong (of Free Colorado) was on hand to testify, and also recorded testimony of others.

Clear The Bench Colorado Director Matt Arnold submitted written comments before the hearing, and also showed up in person to testify (video courtesy of Ari Armstrong, Free Colorado)

Both written comments and oral testimony conclude with what I consider the most powerful argument against Colorado’s campaign finance regime:

In summary: the attack dogs, firehoses and truncheons previously used to harass and intimidate citizens wishing to exercise their rights of free speech and association have been replaced as tools by the more ”civilized and sophisticated” use of lawyers and bureaucrats with the power to impose fines & penalties - even imprisonment – instead of mere physical beatings.

The overall effect – intimidation and abuse of power – remains remarkably similar.

Following the overwhelming weight of public comment and testimony in favor of raising the threshold for Issue Committee registration and reporting, in what must be considered a victory (albeit incremental) for free speech rights, the office of Secretary of State adopted the new rule on 13 May 2011.

Additional commentary on Colorado’s campaign finance regime (H/T Ari Armstrong):

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free -nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

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