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Legal news from Saturday, December 31, 2011




US State Department: Egypt to halt raids on pro-democracy groups
Max Slater on December 31, 2011 3:05 PM ET

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[JURIST] The Egyptian government agreed on Friday to cease its crackdowns on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that advocate for democracy in Egypt, according to the US Department of State (DOS) [official website]. Egyptian officials assured the US [BBC report] that it would return all property and assets seized in the raids to the NGOs. Despite Egypt's assurances, however, the US said that the raids on NGOs did not positively reflect the Egyptian government's commitment to democracy. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland expressed her concern [press briefing] over Egypt's approach toward the NGOs:
We believe that these NGOs are there to support the democratic process. Some of these are institutions that are supported by the United States Government, that work around the world in the interests of helping citizens realize their goals of democratic processes taking root in their country ... So we are very concerned, because [raids are] not appropriate in the current environment.
The raids resulted from concerns by the Egyptian government over how the pro-democracy NGOs were funded. Egypt's military proclaimed that it would not tolerate foreign interference [Reuters report] in the nation's affairs. The US hinted that the raids may induce increased scrutiny over the $1.3 billion in military aid that the US sends to Egypt annually.

Egyptian crackdowns against protesters have drawn significant criticism recently. On Thursday, Egyptian prosecutors and police raided the offices of 17 pro-democracy groups. Two weeks ago, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [official website] Navi Pillay [official profile] condemned [JURIST report] a brutal suppression of protesters that led to 11 deaths and over 500 injuries. In late November, Pillay called for an independent probe [JURIST report] into violent skirmishes between protesters and government forces. Earlier in November, Amnesty International (AI) [official website] issued a report [JURIST report] chastising the Egyptian government for using unwarranted violence in discouraging political dissent. Shortly before AI released its report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon [official profile] and a group of UN human rights experts urged [JURIST report] the Egyptian government to protect human rights and civil liberties following a bloody clash between police forces and approximately 50,000 protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt.




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Montana high court upholds ban on corporate campaign spending
Max Slater on December 31, 2011 1:41 PM ET

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[JURIST] The Montana Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] on Friday to uphold a restriction on corporate independent expenditures related to state political campaigns and candidates. In the case, Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Montana, the high court affirmed a century-old ban on corporate spending, implemented by the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act [PPL backgrounder]. The high court concluded that corporations have numerous avenues for voicing their political views, despite the ban on independent expenditures. Specifically, the law allows corporations to set up Political Action Committees (PACs) fund political speech:
Corporations, through their political committees organized under Montana law, are and have been a substantial presence and active participants in Montana politics ... The many lobbyists and political committees who participate in each session of the Montana Legislature bear witness. Under the undisputed facts here, the political committee is an easily implemented and effective alternative to direct corporate spending for engaging in political speech.
A main difference between corporate independent expenditures and PACs is that, under Montana state law, PACs are subject to special disclosure and reporting laws. Two judges dissented from the majority, arguing [AP report] that the US Supreme Court [official website] ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] declares that a state cannot impose a complete ban on corporate spending. The dissent predicts that if the Supreme Court hears this case, it will overturn the Montana high court's decision.

Campaign finance [JURIST news archive] has been a hotly contested issue recently. Two weeks ago, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit [official website] struck down [JURIST report] a Wisconsin law that prohibited people from donating more than $10,000 per year to political action committees. In June, the US Supreme Court ruled that an Arizona campaign finance regulation violated the First Amendment [JURIST report]. In May, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [official website] upheld [JURIST report] a Minnesota law that prohibited direct contributions to candidates and affiliated entities. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York [official website] ruled in 2009 that a Connecticut campaign finance law discriminated against minor party candidates [JURIST report] in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Correction: Prior versions of this article referred to direct corporate campaign contributions opposed to corporate "independent expenditures." Updated February 16, 2012.




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US appeals court strikes down state law restricting election donations
Jaimie Cremeans on December 31, 2011 12:00 PM ET

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[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] that a Washington law banning political action committees from taking donations of $5,000 or more in the last three weeks before an election is unconstitutional. The law was challenged by Family PAC [official website] on three grounds, including two that require political action committees to report on the identities and occupations of contributors. Only the three-week time limitation was found to be an unconstitutional violation of the right to free speech under the First Amendment [text]. Washington Attorney General Robert McKenna [official website] argued the law was designed to protect citizens who take advantage of a widely used vote-by-mail system, in which voters mail in their ballots 18 days before the election. The court, however, said a 21-day ban on accepting donations is not "narrowly tailored" to suit the governmental interest in "informing the electorate." The court also concluded that, "The fact that voters have access to ballots earlier than before, and that they may choose to vote before all the election debate is in fact over, is not a sufficient reason to save this statute."

Washington has been involved in multiple lawsuits involving elections this year. In November, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the names of signers of a petition to abolish a domestic partnership law could be released [JURIST report] because it was not a violation of the First Amendment or unreasonably dangerous to do so. A US district court also ruled in January on the constitutionality of Washington's primary election system [JURIST report]. The court held that the system was constitutional because it would not confuse a reasonable voter, as plaintiffs said it would.




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US appeals court upholds telecom company immunity law
Jaimie Cremeans on December 31, 2011 11:20 AM ET

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[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] on Thursday unanimously ruled [opinion, PDF] that a law granting immunity from civil suits for telecommunications companies that assist government intelligence agencies is constitutional. The Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act of 2008 (FISA) [text] provides in Section 802 that "a civil action may not lie or be maintained . . . against any person for providing assistance to an element of the intelligence community" as long as the Attorney General certifies this fact while it is still in district court. In an appeal of a dismissal under this section challenging the provision as unconstitutional, a three-judge panel of appeals judges affirmed the dismissal, saying the section "does not violate Articles I or II of the Constitution or the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment." The same court also reinstated two other lawsuits [Washington Post report] brought by telecommunications customers seeking redress for alleged violations of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA) [official website].

The appeal consolidated 33 cases brought since 2006 challenging immunity for the companies as unconstitutional. The US House of Representatives passed amendments to FISA [JURIST report] in 2008 that included a controversial provision granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in the NSA warrantless surveillance program [JURIST news archive]. The original suits were brought in response to reports that the NSA was using data gathered from warrantless searches [JURIST report] by American telecommunications companies to identify people with connections to terrorism. The US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review ruled [opinion, PDF] in 2002 that warrantless wiretapping surveillance was constitutional after an order by former US President George W. Bush authorized the NSA to secretly monitor international calls [JURIST report].




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