(Institute for Justice) On Dec. 29, Magistrate Judge Craig B. Shaffer of the Federal District Court for the District of Colorado ruled that a lawsuit against Colorado Secretary of State Wayne W. Williams can go forward. The lawsuit involves a First Amendment challenge by Strasburg, Colo. resident Tammy Holland to Colorado’s unique system of campaign finance enforcement, under which any person may file a private lawsuit to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws.
Holland filed the lawsuit, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), after she was twice sued by members of her local school board for running newspaper ads urging voters to educate themselves about school-board candidates. Even though she was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, the lawsuits dragged on for months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Holland said, “Nobody should be able to sue their neighbor for talking about politics. I’m thrilled that this case can move forward so that we can put a stop to these abusive lawsuits.”
Although most states allow private individuals to file complaints alleging that someone has violated campaign finance laws, Colorado is unique in that it has outsourced virtually all of its campaign finance enforcement to private parties. Under the law, any person may initiate a lawsuit to enforce the law by filing a complaint with the Secretary of State. All complaints—even frivolous ones—then proceed to full-blown litigation.
IJ Senior Attorney Paul Sherman said, “Colorado’s law has worked out exactly as you would expect. People routinely file private-enforcement suits, not out of genuine interest in enforcing the campaign-finance laws, but to harass or intimidate their political opponents. That’s not just wrong, it’s unconstitutional.”
Under Thursday’s ruling, IJ and Holland will now be permitted to make that case. Recognizing that Holland’s political speech “is at the core of our electoral process and of the First Amendment freedoms,” Judge Shaffer denied a motion by the government to dismiss the case.
Hundreds of private-enforcement suits have been filed in Colorado over the past decade, and they are overwhelmingly filed to target disfavored political or ideological speech. In recent years, one organization has filed more than 60 such cases, with the open mission of waging “political guerilla legal warfare” against viewpoints its founder dislikes.
“Political operatives in Colorado know that, under the private-enforcement system, the process is the punishment,” said IJ Attorney Sam Gedge. “Even frivolous lawsuits can tie political speakers up in court for months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees.”
Sherman concluded, “Under the First Amendment, the government can’t outsource enforcement of its campaign finance laws to every disgruntled politico with an axe to grind. We look forward to striking down Colorado’s system of private campaign finance enforcement, and ensuring that all Coloradans can speak their mind without fear of being hauled into court.”