TALLAHASSEE — A lawsuit that could wipe out state law requiring issue campaigns to disclose their contributors inched forward in federal court on Wednesday with both sides asking the judge to dismiss the case.
The suit was filed by a group of Sarasota and Charlotte County residents with ties to the tea party — Andrew Worley, Pat Wayman, John Scolaro and Robin Stublen — who claim the state's contribution requirements put an unconstitutional burden on their right to free speech.
But attorneys for the Florida Department of State argued the requirements are minimal yet critical to protecting the electorate's right to know who is speaking to them.
Judge Robert L. Hinkle made no immediate ruling from his Tallahassee courtroom, directed his most pointed questions on Wednesday to the plaintiffs. The quartet ran into the campaign finance laws when they wanted to run radio ads in 2010 urging voters to defeat a constitutional amendment known as "Hometown Democracy." The amendment ultimately failed.
Hinkle peppered Paul Sherman, an Institute for Justice attorney representing the plaintiffs, with questions about their reliance on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, known as Citizens United, that corporations can spend without limit on independent political broadcasts.
Hinkle said that case was limited to a corporation spending its own money and questioned whether it could be applied to a group collecting contributions.
"Doesn't the state have an interest in keeping contributions separate from personal accounts?" Hinkle said, pointing to laws that prohibit the commingling of business and personal accounts.
Sherman, however, said there shouldn't be more burden on a grass-roots group than a corporation in a political debate.
Plaintiffs are not challenging Florida's expenditure laws, which means political groups could be in the awkward position of reporting what they spend money but not disclosing the sources of that cash.
Hinkle gave at least some credence to the plaintiff's argument, disputing that the state only asks for financial information groups already would keep.
Hinkle told Ashley Davis, the assistant general counsel at the state department, that state law requires the Sarasota residents to at least walk into a bank and set up a checking account for their committee.
"For these four people, wouldn't it be a whole lot easier if they didn't have to do that?" Hinkle said.
Michael C. Bender can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.