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Supreme Court seems wary of California donor disclosure law

Supreme Court seems wary of California donor disclosure law
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Monday appeared wary of a California law that requires nonprofit charities to disclose the identities of their top financial donors to state officials.

Hearing arguments by phone, the conservative-majority court signaled sympathy for the law's challengers, with several justices raising doubts about California’s ability to guarantee that donor information would not leak and spark a public backlash.

“Do you think it would be reasonable for someone who wants to make a substantial contribution to an organization that has been accused of being racist or homophobic or White supremacist, that in this environment that they would be chilled, because they have reduced or no confidence that their contribution will be kept confidential?” Justice Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSupreme Court gets it wrong again, denying justice to those in uniform Overnight Defense: Top general drops objection to major change in prosecuting military sexual assault | Supreme Court declines to take up case from former West Point cadet | Pentagon says 'small' attacks not affecting Afghanistan withdrawal Supreme Court declines to hear case over former West Point cadet's rape allegations MORE asked an attorney for California.

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Nonprofit charities are required to give California's attorney general the donor details behind major contributions, which the state argues is key to preventing charity fraud.

But the court's more conservative justices seemed chiefly concerned that the disclosure requirement could run afoul of free association protections and have a chilling effect on potential donors with concerns about California’s record of lapses in confidentiality.

The pair of challengers Monday were Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a group founded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch, and the conservative Catholic litigation firm the Thomas More Law Center.

A California federal court initially blocked the state from requiring the disclosures. But a San Francisco-based federal appeals panel reversed that ruling, prompting the conservative groups' Supreme Court appeal. 

The case has drawn interest from both sides of the political spectrum, producing some unusual alliances. In one friend of the court brief, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Human Rights Campaign and others lent support to the conservative challengers.

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Justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoConservative justices split in ruling for immigrant fighting deportation Stand and deliver — President Biden's maiden address to Congress Supreme Court seems wary of California donor disclosure law MORE, one of the court’s staunchest conservatives, cited the groups’ brief, which argued that the challengers “have shown that people publicly associated with their organizations have been subjected to threats, harassment or economic reprisals in the past.”

At the same time, a number of Democrats and outside groups have staked out an opposing position, warning that a broad ruling against the California law could make it easier for “dark money” groups to extend their political reach through anonymous spending.

The Department of Justice on Monday urged the court to take a middle ground that would allow exemptions for certain nonprofits. 

A decision in the case, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra, No. 19-251, is expected this summer.

Updated at 1:31 p.m.