Thursday, October 29, 2009

Keeping Democracy Alive: Courts in Maine and Washington Rebuff Attempts to Circumvent Full-Disclosure Laws

As a follow-up to my posting yesterday about the National Organization of Marriage’s continued attempts to skirt Maine’s full-disclosure finance regulations for political groups active in the state’s campaigns: the Maine Supreme Court ruled yesterday against a request by NOM that the state suspend its campaign reporting requirements for ballot initiatives.

As Andrew Sullivan notes, the court stresses that Maine voters need to know the source of financial support for those trying to influence the outcome of ballot initiatives. The court decision is available in a pdf file here. It notes:

Maine has a very strong interest in providing its voters with information about the source of the money that funds the campaign on either side of a ballot issue. . . . Maine has a strong and even compelling interest in helping the electorate assess the particular issue on its merits by providing voters with information about where the money supporting a measure has come from and therefore whose interest it serves.

A strong and compelling interest in helping the electorate assess an issue on its merits by providing information about where money comes from: the full-disclosure regulations NOM is attacking are about the right of voters to inform themselves as they weigh various viewpoints. These laws are about protecting the democratic process against the incursion of big-monied interest groups. If that incursion is going to take place—and it does so routinely in American political life—we who are voters have a right to know about it, about where money is coming from, how it is being used, and why particular players want to determine the outcome of ballot initiatives.

NOM’s lawsuit against the state of Maine is an attack on democracy itself. One of the most significant—and perhaps unanticipated—outcomes of the prop 8 victory in California is that the spotlight now shines on how some interest groups (in the case of gay issues, often religiously based ones) routinely use big bucks in unscrupulous ways to influence the political process. The spotlight now shining on their financial wheelings and dealings also shows us how these religiously based groups often circumvent local laws and violate fundamental ethical principles, as they try to hide the identity of their donors and how their funds are being used.

I don’t think those attacking gay marriage in California anticipated this outcome when they won in that state, but a significant outcome of their “victory” has been to make increasing numbers of Americans aware, across the nation, of precisely how groups attacking gay citizens—including churches—go about doing business. The gay community has long been aware that the way in which many faith-based groups and their political operatives do their homophobic business is ethically indefensible and dangerous to democracy.

After prop 8, more and more mainstream Americans are learning the same lesson. And that’s all to the good. It means that more and more people will put pressure for transparency and accountability on organizations like NOM (and the Catholic and Mormon churches) as these groups engage in anti-gay political activism in places like Maine and Washington state—pressure to disclose where money comes from and how it’s being used.

This is good for the democratic process. It’s essential to the proper functioning of the democratic process. And it’s a political dynamic that is not going to go away anytime soon, after what happened in California in the last election. The Maine Supreme Court’s decision illustrates that many states are no longer allowing themselves to be browbeaten by the religious right and its deep-pocket funders, when it comes to gay rights issues.

I noted last Friday that on the same day that NOM filed suit against the state of Maine to prevent disclosure of NOM’s funders, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, the Family PAC, filed suit in Washington state for the very same reason. There, too, groups fighting to thwart the extension of some rights and privileges of marriage to same-sex couples want to hide the names of their donors and political backers.

Yesterday, a Tacoma court took the same step that the Maine Supreme Court did: as Pam’s House Blend blog reports, federal judge Ronald B. Leighton denied Family PAC’s request “to gut Washington state's campaign finance laws a week before the election.”

These may seem like tiny victories, incremental steps towards fairness. They’re more than that, I think. Regardless of the outcome of the Maine and Washington elections (and I certainly hope for a good outcome), what we’re seeing happening now is a gradual but decisive shift of the judicial and legislative structures in many places in the U.S. towards fair play, against some highly funded and not ethically admirable players.

This shift occurred in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s as well. Up to that period, courts were as likely to listen to bogus “biblically-based” arguments against racial justice as they have been until recently to listen to similar arguments against justice for gay citizens.

But as more and more people in more and more places became aware of the truly indefensible way that African-American citizens were treated in many states, public opinion began to shift, and along with it, judicial understanding of the issues. A similar dynamic is at work now in the gay rights movement, and it’s one we need to celebrate. And to assist, by keeping the spotlight shining on the real lives of gay Americans and on the activities of those throwing stones from the shadows.