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Iowa Right to Life Asks Supreme Court to Overturn Law on Corporate Election Spending

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Led by attorney James Bopp Jr., the anti-choice advocacy group wants to spend money on political campaigns without declaring itself a political action committee. Will the Roberts Court let it?

James Bopp Jr., lead counsel for Iowa Right to Life (IRTL), is asking the Supreme Court to strike down a state law that bans corporations from giving money directly to political candidates in Iowa. It’s the latest in a long list of Bopp’s election-related crusades on behalf of religious conservatives in the state, who most recently challenged the state’s judicial election process after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality.

This time Bopp wants the Supreme Court to take up the case of Iowa Right to Life v. Tooker and decide whether state bans on direct corporation-to-candidate contributions violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 2010, Iowa Right to Life wanted to donate to a candidate running for attorney general but claimed it was prohibited under the state’s contributions disclosure law. IRTL says if it were to make an independent expenditure over $750, the State of Iowa could deem it a political action committee (PAC) and require it to register as such and disclose its donors. According to IRTL, the law prohibits corporations from donating directly to candidates they support while allowing other entities like labor unions the ability to make direct contributions. That difference constitutes unequal treatment under the law, according to IRTL, and is unconstitutional.

IRTL challenged the law and lost at both the district court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the law generally, holding that it prevents political corruption. But the Roberts Court could take up the case and consider whether or not groups like IRTL have a “major purpose” in political advocacy and should be subject to disclosure laws, or whether the law should distinguish between organizations with a major purpose in political advocacy and other organizations.

In addition to challenging the law on the grounds that it treats corporations different than other organizations, Bopp and IRTL also argue the ban violates the First Amendment, building on the precedent established in Citizens United v. FEC (the Federal Election Commission) that greatly expanded the scope of First Amendment protections to include corporate political spending. It’s an argument that Bopp, one of the legal architects behind the Citizens United case, has been advocating for years, and one which the Roberts Court seems increasingly sympathetic to considering.

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The Supreme Court is already hearing a major election law challenge this term, McCutcheon v. FEC, which challenges campaign contribution limits on individual donors. And while the chances of any request for Supreme Court review face steep odds of being granted, if there’s one area of particular interest to the Roberts Court, as indicated by its docket over the last three terms, it’s the expansion of corporate constitutional protections.

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