A meandering legal dispute between Texas Democrats and a Houston tea party group has landed before the Texas Supreme Court in a case that could overturn longtime election laws that require certain political committees to disclose donors and ban direct political contributions from corporations.
Arguing before the court Tuesday, the Democrats’ lawyer, Chad Dunn, warned that overturning the laws would open “the floodgates to the secret funding of elections.”
“If this court wants to open the political process to Uber and Lyft and Exxon and Pinterest and other corporations to use corporate profits to determine who ought to prevail in (campaigns), it should tread carefully,” Dunn said.
But James Bopp Jr., an Indiana lawyer known for challenging campaign finance regulations nationwide, argued that Texas election laws improperly limit the free-speech rights of the King Street Patriots in Houston and similar groups.
The Texas laws also are unconstitutionally vague, chilling speech by allowing for arbitrary and capricious enforcement, Bopp told the all-Republican court.
“We have a core democratic value at stake essential to the ability of citizens to participate in our democracy, and that is to be able to talk about the government, politicians and what is happening without being fearful that they will cross some vague line,” Bopp said.
The case began when the Texas Democratic Party filed a 2010 lawsuit accusing King Street Patriots of making illegal contributions to the Republican Party and GOP candidates by training poll watchers who were provided to the party to monitor the 2010 general election in Harris County.
The lawsuit also accused the tea party-aligned group of failing to register as a political committee and failing to disclose its donors as required.
King Street Patriots countersued, arguing that several state election laws were unconstitutional, and both sides agreed to have the courts decide if the laws were enforceable before determining if the organization violated any of them.
A Travis County district judge and the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals have upheld the challenged election laws, leading to the Supreme Court’s review.
King Street Patriots argues that state donor-disclosure laws place onerous burdens on small organizations by requiring them to register with the state, keep records and file extensive, ongoing reports — leaving many to avoid participating in politics as “simply not worth it.”
The organization also sued to overturn a provision that allows private groups, such as the Texas Democratic Party, to sue to enforce election laws.
“Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment and is highly protected because political speech is essential to self-government by the people,” Bopp told the court Tuesday.
But Dunn said Texas legislators decided long ago to allow unlimited spending on political campaigns and issues as long as committees disclosed the sources of the money. That information is critical to allowing voters to make informed choices, he said.
“We decided that everyone can play in politics in Texas with one principle: The electorate, the public will know where that money comes from,” Dunn said.
A decision from the Supreme Court is expected by the end of June.