May 26, 2010

Judge: ID donors to Maine's same-sex law repeal

If the ruling is finalized, state officials will get the names of those who gave a total of $1.9 million to the campaign.

From staff and news services

State officials should be given the names of donors who helped to finance last year’s successful campaign to repeal Maine’s gay-marriage law, according to a preliminary order by a federal magistrate judge.

In a ruling dated Sunday, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Rich III said the National Organization for Marriage, which contributed $1.9 million to the repeal campaign, should give documents relating to donors and fundraising dating back to Jan. 1, 2009, to the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
Those names, under Rich’s order, could not be made public but could be shared with state officials.

Rich denied a request for documents dating back to Jan. 1, 2008, saying the gay-marriage campaign was not yet active.

For Rich’s order to take effect, a federal district judge must sign off on it. That may not happen for a few more weeks.

Rich’s ruling was challenged Tuesday, with lawyers for the National Organization for Marriage filing an appeal in U.S. District Court.

The state has until June 11 to file its response before a final ruling is made, said Kate Simmons, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.

“This is just one skirmish in what promises to be many skirmishes,” Simmons said. “But the state is very pleased with the judge’s decision. It sets us on a course to be able to fully enforce Maine campaign finance laws.”

Simmons said state law requires that donors be identified.

The state’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted in October to examine the New Jersey-based organization’s contributions after it was accused of not reporting the names of many donors.

The group objected, saying its donors contribute to the organization and not to a particular referendum campaign.

In his ruling, Rich rejected the National Organization for Marriage’s claim that disclosure of donors’ names would leave them open to harassment by those who oppose their one-man, one-woman view of marriage.

He also rejected the group’s claim that disclosure of donors’ names would have a chilling effect on their First Amendment rights to express their views.

Documents provided to the Attorney General’s Office would be available to the ethics commission but would not be disclosed publicly because of ongoing litigation, Simmons said.

In their appeal filed Tuesday, the organization’s lawyers argue that “disclosing personal donor information, even limited disclosure to opposing counsel, would have a substantial negative effect on the ability of NOM to raise funds.”

The state law passed in May 2009 to legalize same-sex marriage was put on hold after its opponents started a petition drive to repeal it in a referendum. The outcome marked the first time that voters had rejected a gay-marriage law enacted by a legislature.

A separate case, in Maine Superior Court, will determine whether the National Organization for Marriage should have filed with the ethics commission as a ballot question committee, which would have required the disclosure of donors’ names.

Earlier this month, Josiah Neeley, one of the organization’s lawyers, appeared in Kennebec County Superior Court. He told Justice Donald Marden that donors in other states have been harassed for giving money in the fight against gay marriage.

“Anonymity is something you can’t get back once it’s lost,” Neeley was quoted as saying by the Morning Sentinel.

Neeley and his partner, James Bopp Jr. of the Bopp, Coleson and Bostrom law firm in Terre Haute, Ind., could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Stephen C. Whiting of Portland, the lawyer representing the organization in Maine, also could not be reached.

Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, which campaigned unsuccessfully to uphold the law, said she recognizes that the legal battle over the donors’ names isn’t over, but that Rich’s ruling was a good sign.

“We all play by the rules. They need to play by the rules,” Smith said Tuesday night. “It’s important because we need to know who is trying to influence the outcome of an election.

“If anything, it shows we are trying to uphold and abide by the laws of Maine. It feels really good to have this position stated publicly,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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