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‘Cowboys for Trump’ fight of New Mexico donor rules dumped by 10th Circuit

The group — led by a local politician who also faces charges in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol — fear the disclosure requirement will scare away anonymous donors.

(CN) —  A lack of standing doomed Cowboys for Trump's lawsuit over New Mexico donor disclosure rules, with the 10th Circuit on Tuesday affirming a federal judge's dismissal of the case.

“Plaintiffs alleged that they had not made and would not make any independent expenditures that would trigger the reporting or disclaimer requirements,” U.S. Circuit Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote in the 18-page opinion issued Tuesday.

“Therefore, compelled disclosure of donor information per those requirements is not plausible. Absent a plausible chance of such disclosure, there can be no chilling effect on any donor’s willingness to donate,” the George W. Bush appointee added.

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin registered Cowboys for Trump as a limited liability corporation to collect donations as he advocated for then-president Donald Trump’s policies like the border wall and antiabortion policies. New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver in 2019 ordered Cowboys for Trump to register as a political action committee or face a $7,800 fine.

Cowboys for Trump sued New Mexico in June 2020 challenging state reporting, disclosure, and disclaimer provisions in the New Mexico Campaign Reporting Act.

New Mexico law requires political action committees disclose donors' names when an entity makes independent expenditures, namely paid advertisements endorsing candidates or stances on ballot questions.

Cowboys for Trump had no intention of making independent expenditures, but worried the existence of the reporting requirement might drive away donors who wished to remain anonymous.

But unless and until it made independent expenditures Cowboys for Trump would not trigger the state’s reporting requirement, leading a federal judge to dismiss the case for lack of standing. Instead of filing an amended complaint with the district, Griffin appealed.

Griffin and Cowboys for Trump relied heavily on the 1958 Supreme Court case National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama, in which the state obtained a court order compelling the NAACP to disclose its members.

“We agree with the district court that NAACP is distinguishable because, as we explain, it involved a compelled disclosure, whereas plaintiffs’ allegations regarding independent expenditures show they have not and will not be compelled to disclose donor information if they engage in issue advocacy,” Tymkovich wrote for the panel.

The panel observed Cowboys for Trump might have argued standing based on the state’s threat of a fine for failing to register as a political action committee, but the issue was not raised until the case hit the 10th Circuit.

"We will not disturb the district court’s ruling because plaintiffs failed to include allegations in their complaint related to registration,” Tymkovich wrote. “Plaintiffs have no judicially created obstacles in attempting to cure the jurisdictional defects in their complaint through an amended complaint.”

U.S. Circuit Judges Gregory Phillips and Carolyn McHugh, both Barack Obama appointees, also sat on the panel.

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Griffin over his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He faces charges of entering and remaining in a restricted building as well as disruptive and disorderly conduct. He denies having entered the building and claims he went to pray and peacefully protest.

His trial is set to begin in March.

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