March 26, 2018

In a ruling that will benefit hundreds of citizens and political groups throughout the state of Colorado, the Colorado Supreme Court on January 29 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 incredibly complex campaign finance system.

This case has its origins in the 2012 campaign for the Colorado Board of Regents, when a group called Coloradans for a Better Future (CBF) ran political ads criticizing Matthew Arnold, a Republican candidate for the Board. After Arnold lost the election, he turned to the courts, filing three separate campaign finance lawsuits against CBF. To escape this harassment, CBF shut down with the help of a volunteer lawyer. But this only triggered a fourth lawsuit by a group Arnold founded, Campaign Integrity Watchdog (CIW), alleging that the volunteer lawyer’s services should have been reported as a campaign contribution.

Unfortunately, in April 2016, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed, handing down a ruling that threatened hundreds or even thousands of political speakers throughout Colorado.

Where others see only roadblocks, we see opportunities.

To understand how dangerous this ruling was, it helps to understand that in Colorado, unlike in most states, any person may file a lawsuit to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws (as the sidebar notes, IJ is currently challenging this system in federal court). Not surprisingly, these lawsuits are routinely filed over trivial reporting errors by people looking to harass and intimidate their political opponents. Treating pro bono legal services as a contribution thus worked a double harm:  It created a new trap for the unwary, and it made it harder for small, unsophisticated groups to get the legal help they needed to navigate this regulatory minefield.

If the court of appeals’ decision was grim, the chances for reversing that decision were even grimmer. Defunct and without legal representation, CBF had not filed briefs in the trial court or the appellate court. It had lost unanimously at the court of appeals. And its only hope was to persuade the Colorado Supreme Court to take the case.

Most law firms would have called the case hopeless, but IJ is not like most law firms. Where others see only roadblocks, we see opportunities. So we took over representation of CBF and convinced the Colorado Supreme Court not only to hear the case, but to issue an unprecedented order staying the precedential effect of the court of appeals’ decision so that other groups would not face similar lawsuits while we fought to defend CBF.

Now, IJ’s efforts have been rewarded: The Colorado Supreme Court unanimously reversed the court of appeals, adopting IJ’s legal arguments 100 percent. That result is not just good news for political speakers in Colorado—it is a powerful vindication of the never-say-die spirit that helps IJ accomplish the impossible.

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