As California attorney general, Ms. Harris turned up the heat on charitable nonprofits by insisting that they submit to her office the names of leading donors, then threatening to levy fines and suspend their state registrations if the groups refused to comply.
“It all started when her office demanded that we turn over the names and contact information of our major donors, which we felt was private and confidential, and we were ready to make a constitutional issue of it,” said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, one of two plaintiffs.
After a six-year legal battle, the center and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation prevailed Thursday before the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision that found California’s demand for donor data “facially unconstitutional.”
The case now bears the name of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who assumed office in April, but conservatives and free-speech advocates want to ensure that the pivotal role played by Ms. Harris is not forgotten.
“It was during Harris’ tenure as attorney general in 2012-13 that her office threatened these two groups that just won at the Supreme Court, threatened to basically cancel their registrations with the state, which would prevent them from being able to operate or solicit money in the state,” said Mike Columbo, a lawyer with the Dhillon Law Group in San Francisco.
Before Ms. Harris took over, the attorney general’s office showed little interest in pursuing the center’s unredacted Form 990 Schedule B, which lists leading donors, contact information and contributions, Mr. Thompson said.
“They had a regulation in the attorney general’s office that they could request information of our 990s,” he said. “They routinely asked for that information, and we routinely refused to give it to them, and it was only in 2012 that they started to ask it in more insistent tones. So at some point, they decided they wanted to make us an example.”
Mike Brownfield, communications director of the free-market Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, tweeted that as attorney general, “Kamala Harris demanded nonprofits to disclose the identity of their donors, exposing them to threats of violence — all for exercising their freedom of speech.”
Matt Whitlock, former National Republican Senatorial Committee senior adviser, added: “Very little attention on the fact that Kamala Harris‘ failure to protect donor privacy played a big role in the Supreme Court‘s ruling today.”
The vice president’s office did not return a request for comment.
The California attorney general’s office maintained that the donor disclosures were needed for investigations into charitable fraud, an argument that failed to persuade Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
He said the “record amply supports the District Court’s finding that there was not ‘a single, concrete instance in which pre-investigation collection of Schedule B did anything to advance the Attorney General’s investigative, regulatory or enforcement efforts.’”
“The need for up-front collection is particularly dubious given that California — one of only three states to impose such a requirement — did not rigorously enforce the disclosure obligation until 2010,” Justice Roberts said in his majority opinion.
National Review Online contributor Jim Geraghty responded by quipping, “What kind of power-hungry lunatic became California attorney general in 2010? Oh, that one.”
Ms. Harris did not assume the job until January 2011 — she was elected attorney general in November 2010 — but the push for the Schedule B forms became a hallmark of her office, fueling concerns about the risk to donors if the documents were leaked or accidentally released.
In fact, that’s what happened: Under Ms. Harris, about 1,800 confidential Schedule B forms were inadvertently posted to the attorney general’s website, prompting a scolding from U.S. District Court Judge Manuel L. Real in his April 2016 ruling against the state.
“While human error can sometimes be unavoidable, the amount of careless mistakes made by the Attorney General’s Registry is shocking,” Judge Real said in his decision, which was later overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Conservatives had reason to worry about harassment: In 2008, donors to California’s Proposition 8, the traditional-marriage ballot initiative, became the target of threats, protests and vandalism after their private information was posted publicly by activists.
Donations to political campaigns are public information, while contributions to 501(c)3 groups such as the Thomas More Law Center are not, a distinction that rankles Democrats leery of “dark money.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, criticized the Supreme Court’s decision upholding donor privacy, saying it “further harms our democracy by allowing the suffocation of the airwaves caused by big dark special interest money.” But the left was hardly united on the issue.
Nearly 300 nonprofit groups sided with Americans for Prosperity and Thomas More, including leading liberal groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In fact, a key case cited in the high court’s Thursday ruling was NAACP v. Alabama, a 1958 decision that found the state’s effort to force the NAACP to turn over its membership lists represented a threat to freedom of association.
“Forcing advocacy groups — whether it be the NAACP or Americans for Prosperity — to place their donors’ identities on a publicly accessible government list, scares people away from contributing to organizations that speak for their values,” said Timothy Sandefur, Goldwater Institute vice president for litigation.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, disagreed, saying the “decision warps the legacy of NAACP v. Alabama by extending its protections to fossil fuel billionaires and massive corporations.”
He and 14 other Democratic senators filed a brief in March that “urged the court to uphold the limited nonprofit disclosure requirements at issue in the case and to help check the decline in Americans’ confidence in their government.”
After Ms. Harris was elected to the Senate in 2016, her successor, Xavier Becerra, continued to pursue the case until he was tapped this year by President Biden to lead the Health and Human Services Department.
“I think the embrace of extensive disclosure is something that you could say she and her successor both share, along with the left generally,” Mr. Columbo said.
Observers on the right view Ms. Harris’ decision to zero in on the two conservative nonprofits as less than coincidental.
The state receives about 60,000 annual solicitation applications each year from 501(c)3 groups, “so the question becomes, why did they select the Thomas More Law Center, which is a relatively small organization compared to a lot of organizations that solicit funds in the state of California,” Mr. Thompson said.
Conservatives grew more wary of Ms. Harris’ motives after she targeted Center for Medical Progress founder David Daleiden in 2016, signing off on orders to search his apartment and seize undercover video footage from his investigation into Planned Parenthood’s fetal-tissue sales.
“We never got into how they selected the Thomas More Law Center or any other of the few organizations they selected to make an issue out of,” Mr. Thompson said. “But we had promised our donors that their names were confidential and that we would never release them.”
The Michigan-based center never did.
“From past experience, we know because we are involved in controversial issues, that people take advantage of that and start doxing or trying to destroy people’s livelihood by getting them fired from their job,” Mr. Thompson said. “Because of the controversial issues we’re involved with, we never turn over our donors’ information.”
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