The Nevada Supreme Court has upheld the district court order requiring Citizen Outreach to register with the Secretary of State’s Elections Division and disclose both its list of contributors and expenditures.
Then-Secretary of State Ross Miller ordered the organization to comply with Nevada law in a battle over Citizen Outreach’s advertising and fliers calling for the defeat of congressional candidate John Oceguera. The group sued arguing it didn’t use the “magic words” defined as express advocacy — words such as vote for, support, defeat, reject. Therefore, Citizen Outreach argued, it was exempt from the registration and disclosure requirements in Nevada law.
Miller’s office argued the Legislature intended a broader definition of express advocacy not tied just to those so-called “magic words” and District Judge James Wilson in Carson City agreed. He granted the state summary judgment.
“The narrow magic words test would eviscerate Nevada’s disclosure requirements because a speaker could easily skirt these requirements simply by avoiding certain key words while conveying a message that is unmistakably directed to the election or defeat of a named candidate,” the five member majority of the court wrote.
“Because we conclude that the fliers expressly advocated the defeat of Oceguera, we affirm,” the ruling states.
The other two members of the court, Michael Douglas and Nancy Saitta, issued a separate opinion agreeing with the result reached by the other five members but for different reasons. They stated the Legislature intended to adopt a broad definition of “advocate expressly.”
One of the fliers described Oceguera as “getting fat off the taxpayers” by earning a fireman’s salary while receiving an Assemblyman’s salary and concluded “we don’t need any more fiddling from John Oceguera.” The second demanded voters “tell John Oceguera that he needs to work like the rest of us.”
“The only way that a voter could stop Oceguera’s ‘fiddling’ or tell him to ‘work like the rest of us’ was by voting against Oceguera,” the court stated.
Therefore, the majority ruled the fliers were express advocacy and Citizen Outreach falls under the requirements imposed by state statute: namely it registers with the Secretary of State and disclose both its contributors and expenditures.
Emily Shaw, an analyst with the nonprofit transparency group The Sunlight Foundation, said Nevada’s move toward more disclosure in campaign finance follows several other states looking to tighten up related laws in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case. However, every state has different requirements and measurements in campaign finance disclosures, making it difficult to compare to other states.
“It’s a wild West out there in terms of campaign disclosures,” she said.
Oceguera, who won his Assembly race in 2010 but made an unsuccessful bid for Congress against Rep. Joe Heck in 2012, said he was pleased with the court’s decision.
“It feels good, because in the sense that everyone else is reporting the money that they put in to do these kinds of ads, they were doing them anonymously,” the former lawmaker said. “That’s just not right. Do what you want, but report it.”
Citizen Outreach head Chuck Muth said he disagreed with the court’s legal argument and called the decision “troubling.”
“We will explore what further legal avenues we might pursue in defense of free speech in Nevada,” he said in an email.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.