Supreme Court Backs Conservatives Against California Donor Disclosure

July 1, 2021 Updated: July 1, 2021

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favor of two conservative groups that challenged a California requirement that tax-exempt charities provide the state the identities of their top financial donors.

The justices, in a 6–3 ruling, sided with the two nonprofit groups—the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Thomas More Law Center—in finding that the California attorney general’s policy, in place for the past decade, violates the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and association.

The court’s six conservatives were in the majority, with its three liberal members dissenting.

Democratic-governed California, the country’s most populous state, has said the donor information is required as part of the state attorney general’s duty to prevent charitable fraud.

“We are left to conclude that the Attorney General’s disclosure requirement imposes a widespread burden on donors’ associational rights,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling.

The state’s interest in “amassing sensitive information for its own convenience is weak,” Roberts added.

The Thomas More Law Center is a conservative Catholic legal group. The Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which funds education and training on conservative issues, is the sister organization of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group—both founded by conservative billionaire businessman Charles Koch and his late brother David.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion that the court has reversed its previous approach.

“Today’s analysis marks reporting and disclosure requirements with a bull’s-eye. Regulated entities who wish to avoid their obligations can do so by vaguely waving toward First Amendment ‘privacy concerns,'” Sotomayor wrote.

Sotomayor said the court had struck down the requirement even with no evidence that the donors would face any negative consequences if their identities became public, including the prospect of facing threats or reprisals as the groups had argued.

The decision was issued on the last day of rulings for the court’s current nine-month term. In the day’s other ruling, the justices made it easier for states to enact election integrity laws, endorsing two Republican-backed measures in Arizona.

The two groups that challenged California’s mandate were backed by an array of nonprofit organizations spanning the ideological spectrum. Liberal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, had urged a narrower ruling in favor of the challengers.

California requires that charities provide a copy of the tax form they file with the Internal Revenue Service that lists donors who contribute big amounts of money. Larger groups must disclose donors who contribute $200,000 or more in any year. That information is not posted online and is kept confidential but some has been disclosed in the past.

The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 reversed a federal judge’s ruling in favor of the groups, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in March.