Victory for Free Speech in Colorado

Colorado Supreme Court Unanimously Affirms Political Speakers’ Right to Use Pro Bono Legal Services

Arlington, Va.—In a ruling that will benefit hundreds of citizens and political groups throughout the state of Colorado, the Colorado Supreme Court today unanimously ruled that pro bono and reduced cost legal services to political organizations cannot be regulated as political “contributions” under Colorado’s campaign finance laws. The ruling in Coloradans for a Better Future v. Campaign Integrity Watchdog ensures that political speakers cannot be hauled into court by their political opponents merely for seeking out legal help navigating Colorado’s complex campaign finance system.

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“Today’s ruling provides vitally needed protection for political speakers in Colorado,” said Paul Sherman, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented Coloradans for a Better Future (CBF) before the Colorado Supreme Court. “Countless groups in Colorado rely on free or reduced cost legal services to navigate the state’s campaign finance laws, and law firms like the Institute for Justice provide free legal services to challenge the constitutionality of those laws. This ruling ensures that they can continue to do so.”

Andy George, a Colorado political consultant who volunteered his time to CBF, said, “Treating pro bono legal services as campaign contributions would have created huge problems for political groups. You would have to attach a value to the services, disclose them to the government, and even then a group like Campaign Integrity Watchdog could still haul you into court simply by saying that you should have disclosed some different value. For groups that don’t have a lot of money to pay lawyers, it would have made it impossible to defend yourself. Thanks to today’s ruling, though, other groups won’t have to go through what CBF went through.”

CBF’s legal odyssey began in 2012, when the group ran ads critical of Matthew Arnold, a Republican candidate for the Colorado Board of Regents. After losing the primary election, Arnold and a group he founded, Campaign Integrity Watchdog, turned to the courts, filing numerous campaign finance lawsuits against CBF. In an effort to escape this harassment, CBF, with the help of a lawyer volunteering his services, filed a termination report with the Secretary of State. But this only prompted another lawsuit from Arnold, this time alleging that the volunteer lawyer’s aid should have been disclosed as a campaign contribution. After an appellate court agreed with Arnold, IJ took over the representation of CBF and successfully sought review in the state Supreme Court.

Despite today’s ruling, serious problems remain due to Colorado’s unusual campaign finance system, which allows any person to file a private lawsuit to enforce the state’s complex campaign finance laws. That system of private campaign finance enforcement is currently the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice.

IJ Attorney Sam Gedge said, “Colorado’s private enforcement system encourages campaign-finance bullies to sue their political opponents rather than debating them in the court of public opinion. Today’s ruling will make it easier for the victims of this abuse-prone system to get the legal help they need.

But IJ won’t stop fighting until the private enforcement system is struck down, so that no political speaker will have to fear being sued by their political opponents.”

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