PHOENIX – The Committee for Justice and Fairness (CJF) should have registered as a political committee and disclosed its financial contributors when the group created television ads attacking Tom Horne’s candidacy for Arizona Attorney General in 2010, according to an Arizona Court of Appeals ruling issued today. The Court sided with Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery in reversing an earlier Superior Court decision that the registration and disclosure requirements are unconstitutional.
“Today’s ruling upholds the principle that outside interest groups cannot hide behind attack ads like the ones funded by the Democratic Attorneys General Association through CJF,” Montgomery said. “Regardless of what has transpired since, these ads were false and unfair. Under our campaign finance laws, Arizona voters are entitled to know where the money behind express advocacy comes from in candidate elections in order to fairly assess whether criticism or praise merits consideration. In diligently seeking to redress wrongdoing and hold CJF accountable in this matter, we used the same objective evidence-driven approach we have used in subsequent campaign finance cases,” he added.
Shortly before the November, 2010 general election, CJF created broadcast television ads challenging Tom Horne’s suitability to serve as Attorney General. At the time, Horne was Superintendent of Public Instruction and engaged in a close race against Felicia Rotellini, the Democrat candidate for Attorney General. The ads, which were aired on Phoenix area Channel 12, claimed that Horne had “voted against tougher penalties for statutory rape” when he was a state legislator, and that as Superintendent he had effectively allowed a teacher who had been caught by students “looking at child pornography on a school computer” back into the classroom.
Horne filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court seeking a temporary restraining order to enjoin CJF and local television stations from broadcasting the ads. Horne’s election committee also filed a complaint with the Arizona Secretary of State alleging CJF had engaged in “express advocacy” and was thus subject to reporting and disclosure requirements as a political committee. The Secretary of State agreed and issued a Reasonable Cause Notice. Horne was subsequently elected Attorney General and had jurisdiction to enforce the finding. However, to avoid a conflict of interest, the Attorney General’s Office requested in January, 2011 that the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office assume enforcement and litigation of the matter.
The MCAO ordered CJF to register as a political committee, file required campaign finance reports, and disclose financial records reflecting the cost of producing the ads. An Administrative Law Judge subsequently upheld the order. CJF then sought judicial review in Superior Court, which reversed the ALJ ruling and vacated the MCAO order. The MCAO and Secretary of State appealed.
In reaching its decision to overturn the Superior Court ruling, the Appeals Court found that state campaign finance laws, specifically A.R.S. § 16-901.01 (A)(2)(a), are not impermissibly vague, as CJF had argued, nor unconstitutionally overbroad. The Court also found that CJF failed to show that the law would have an impermissible chilling effect on speech by requiring citizens or groups to register as political committees.