RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It was big news last fall when California voters approved a ban on gay marriage. Today a federal judge in Sacramento faces an aftershock from that acrimonious political battle. The judge is being asked to stop the disclosure of the names of those who donated to organizations that pushed the ban. The problem is, public disclosure of who gave what is at the core of the campaign finance laws. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: Two groups that worked for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative, were ProtectMarriage.com and the National Organization for Marriage California. They argue that their donors were targeted by Proposition 8 opponents. They say it was worst just after the election. Their court filing includes anonymous declarations from several donors. One says he made a five figure contribution. When it became public, three Facebook groups formed to boycott his stores and the stores were picketed. He says he, quote, "would not donate like this again."
The lawyer here is James Bopp. He may be the leading plaintiffs' lawyer in campaign finance cases. He says Prop. 8 opponents perpetuated vandalism, demonstrations, and even death threats against Prop. 8 donors.
Mr. JAMES BOPP (Attorney): It presents a serious issue for the kind of civil society we're going to have and whether or not democracy is going to continue to flourish.
OVERBY: Bopp is asking federal Judge Morrison England Jr. to stop the disclosure of donors who made small contributions late in the campaign. The big donors have already been disclosed.
Mr. BOPP: It's just hard to believe that anyone, if this information had been available before the election, would care that Joe Blow gave $100 to a multimillion-dollar initiative campaign.
OVERBY: Bopp also wants all of the donor lists for ProtectMarriage.com and the National Organization for Marriage California removed from government records. There's no doubt that many gay rights advocates are angry. There's an anonymous Web site that matches up the Prop. 8 donor lists with Google Maps, so you can identify the donor's house down the street and how much that donor gave. But it cuts both ways. In October, ProtectMarriage.com wrote to big donors to a gay rights group, Equality California. The letter noted their contributions and respectfully requested that the donors correct this error with a big check to ProtectMarriage. Those who didn't donate would have their names published. Geoff Kors, the director of Equality California, monitored the letters.
Mr. GEOFF KORS (Director, Equality California): It went to unions. It went to other businesses. It went to a whole variety of people. So for them now to be saying that they want to hide their donors is incredibly hypocritical.
OVERBY: The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed some exceptions to the disclosure laws if a group can show that disclosing its donors could put them at risk. But this challenge is broader - arguing that the two groups were raising money for a ballot initiative, not for candidates, and so they should be exempt from California's disclosure law. Rick Hasen teaches campaign finance law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Professor RICK HASEN (Campaign Finance Law, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles): There is something very disturbing about people being harassed because they've given money to a particular ballot measure. On the other hand, I think that the idea that a court would come in and strike down a longstanding statute that serves an important public purpose is unlikely.
OVERBY: Hasen also says that in California, politicians are usually involved in the initiative campaigns.
Professor HASEN: It's a well-worn tradition here. And so the idea that there's no potential for corruption of candidates or elected officials through contributions to ballot measure committees is simply incorrect as a factual matter here in California.
OVERBY: California state officials are fighting the complaint. They're scheduled to release the donor lists next Monday. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.