Chief Justice Roberts halts campaign finance ruling

Chief Justice John Roberts stepped in Saturday to halt a federal judge’s order last month that a conservative political group said threatened to discourage independent expenditures by raising the prospect that anonymous donors could be exposed.

Roberts acted Saturday after a three-judge D.C. Circuit panel turned down the same arguments for a stay earlier in the day.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell in August issued a ruling invalidating a Federal Election Commission regulation that has allowed donors to so-called dark-money groups to remain anonymous.

That decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) against the FEC after Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS failed to disclose the names of contributors behind its effort to defeat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2012.

The district court’s ruling was set to take effect on Sept. 17, until Roberts intervened Saturday.

“Upon of the application of counsel for the applicant and the response filed thereto,” Roberts wrote in his brief order, “it is ordered that the order of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, case No. 16-259, is hereby stayed pending further order of the undersigned or of the Court.”

It is not clear whether Roberts’ order is a short-term measure intended to allow further consideration of the issue by the justices, or whether it will remain in place through this fall’s midterm elections.

FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub on Saturday promoted the news of the D.C. Circuit’s decision to deny Crossroads’ emergency stay appeal. But following Roberts’ granting of the group’s request, she quipped on Twitter: “Nice while it lasted.”

Attorney Robert Kelner described the D.C. Circuit’s denial of the stay as a “significant decision” on Twitter.

“This case isn’t getting a lot of attention,” Kelner wrote in another post. “But it’s potentially consequential for outside groups (not FEC registered) running election related ads. It impacts how they raise funds right now. Past fundraising may impact future reporting, including donor disclosure.”

Brent Griffiths contributed to this report.

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