Federal judge strikes down New Jersey donor disclosure law

On March 11, Judge Brian R. Martinotti, of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, signed orders permanently barring New Jersey from enforcing a state law requiring select nonprofits to disclose identifying information about their donors.

Multiple organizations challenged the law in court, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Prosperity, and the Illinois Opportunity Project challenged the legislation in court. President Barack Obama (D) appointed Martinotti to the court in 2016.

What is at issue? Under the law enacted 2019, 501(c)(4) and 527 entities that spent $3,000 or more annually to influence or provide political information about the outcome of any election or policy proposal were required to disclose the identities of their donors who contributed $10,000 or more.

What are the reactions?

  • Jeanne LoCicero, legal director for the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, said, “This court order halts the enforcement of a law that hindered the freedom of assembly, hampered the right to petition government, and compromised privacy rights. All nonprofits should be able to communicate about issues of public concern without fear of being subject to invasive disclosure rules.”
  • Patrick Hughes, president of the Liberty Justice Center, which represented the Illinois Opportunity Project, said, “Adopted under the guise of transparency, these laws are designed to allow opponents of advocacy groups to intimidate and harass the organizations’ supporters. All Americans should be free to support causes they believe in without an invasion into their privacy through excessive government reporting requirements or retribution from their opponents.”
  • In a statement issued March 4, in anticipation of Martinotti’s order, Senator Troy Singleton (D) and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D) said, “We have already begun working with the legislative leadership on the next steps and we believe there is a clear path forward. With the presidential and congressional elections later this year, we expect tens of millions of ‘dark money’ dollars to be spent in an attempt to influence the outcomes. We will continue to fight to ensure that those organizations that accept anonymous large donations are forced to disclose their sources. We must shine a light on who is working secretly to change the course of our elections. The people of New Jersey deserve nothing less than the fairness and transparency our legislation will provide.”

What comes next? It is unclear whether an appeal will be filed. At the time of Martinotti’s order, both the governor’s office and the office of the attorney general declined to comment.

Additional coverage:

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state: We’re currently tracking 45 pieces of legislation dealing with donor disclosure. On the map below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking.

Disclosure Digest map March 16, 2020.png

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

Disclosure Digest status chart March 16, 2020.png

Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s)

Disclosure Digest partisan chart March 16, 2020.png

Recent legislative actions

Below is a complete list of legislative actions taken on relevant bills since our last issue. Bills are listed in alphabetical order, first by state then by bill number.

  • New Hampshire HB1525: This bill would alter the definition of a political advocacy organization for the purposes of campaign finance reporting.
    • House Election Law Committee approved March 12.
    • Democratic sponsorship.
  • Tennessee HB2665: This bill would prohibit public agencies from requiring 501(c) entities to furnish them with personal information about donors.
    • House Constitutional Protections and Sentencing Subcommittee scheduled March 17.
    • Republican sponsorship.
  • Virginia SB979: This bill extends the applicability of the state’s campaign finance disclosure act to candidates for directors or soil and water conservation districts.
    • Delivered to governor March 12. Governor’s action deadline April 11.
    • Republican sponsorship.