Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Challenge to California Requiring Nonprofit Donor Lists

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Challenge to California Requiring Nonprofit Donor Lists
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at a media conference in Los Angeles, on Aug. 2, 2018. (Lucy Nicholson/File Photo/Reuters)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from two conservative charities that fundraise in California, challenging demands by that state for a list of financial contributors, which the Trump administration argues violates the two tax-exempt groups’ constitutionally protected freedom of association.

The appeals concern then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s conduct in office. Currently, a U.S. senator representing the Golden State, Harris is scheduled to be sworn in as vice president on Jan. 20.

The case is Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra, and a companion case, Thomas More Law Center v. Becerra, which have been consolidated and will be heard together by the court on a date that's yet to be decided. The Trump administration had urged the high court to take the case in a friend-of-the-court brief.

Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF) and its sister organization, Americans for Prosperity, are influential libertarian-conservative nonprofits funded by businessman Charles Koch and his late brother David Koch that have chapters across the country. The Thomas More Law Center—not to be confused with the Chicago-based public interest law firm, the Thomas More Society—is a conservative Christian public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The center is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“All Americans should be free to organize around deeply held beliefs,” Emily Seidel, CEO of AFPF, said in a statement. “Stripping citizens of their privacy is a tool wielded by some in political power to silence their opposition and stifle individuals from engaging in educational and charitable efforts.

“Tens of thousands of Americans each year participate in AFPF’s educational programs, which inspire them to make a greater impact in their community and our country.

“Their rights—as well as the rights of every person who participates in organizations that seek to reform our justice system, protect the rights of our veterans, or make progress on other issues as diverse as Americans themselves—are at stake. The court’s decision to hear the case signals the importance of these foundational civil liberties.”

California regulations require charities to file a copy of their IRS Form 990, an informational return for tax-exempt organizations, annually with the state. Schedule B to the form contains the names and addresses of the top donors. While the form is made available to the public, Schedule B donor information must be kept confidential, under pain of federal civil and criminal penalties. When a Schedule B is released to the public, identifying information about the donor is redacted.

Since about 2005, California has demanded that charities file with the state unredacted Schedule B documents, giving state officials the names of donors. The state’s policy is to keep the information confidential but there are no legal penalties for breaching confidentiality.

The charities concerned refuse to file their unredacted Schedule B documents with the liberal, Democratic Party-dominated California government because they don't trust its officials to keep the information secret. They say that their donors have in the past been harassed and been the victims of reprisals when their names became public.

A U.S. district court agreed with the charities and preliminarily enjoined California from requiring petitioners to submit their Schedule B forms. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat named as respondent in the lawsuits, was dismissive.

“California’s donor reporting rules simply require charities to provide the state, on a confidential basis, the same information about major donors that they already provide to the federal government,” Becerra said in a statement. “This information helps the state protect consumers from fraud and the misuse of their charitable contributions. We look forward to defending our rules before the Supreme Court.”

President-elect Joe Biden has said he plans to nominate Becerra to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Harris, who was Becerra’s predecessor as the state's attorney general, was respondent in the lawsuits while she held that post. Her Senate office didn't immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

On the same day, the Supreme Court granted writs of certiorari, or review, in a total of 14 new cases.
“The justices will weigh in on the First Amendment rights of students and charitable organizations, as well as sentencing reductions for inmates serving time for small amounts of crack cocaine,” court watcher Amy Howe writes at SCOTUSblog.

“Perhaps just as notably, the justices did not act on several high-profile petitions that they considered at Friday’s conference, involving (among other things) abortion, a dispute over the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s extension of the deadline for absentee ballots for the 2020 election, and the right to sue the president under the Constitution’s emoluments clause.”