CARSON CITY, Nevada — A Nevada judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state's top election official against a conservative Republican group over political fliers targeting a state Senate candidate in the 2012 election.
Senior District Judge Robert Estes said Americans for Prosperity was not required to register with the secretary of state's office or file donor contribution reports as argued in the civil lawsuit filed by Democratic Secretary of State Ross Miller.
Americans for Prosperity is a funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
Adam Stryker, Nevada spokesman for AFP, hailed the ruling Wednesday as a "victory for free speech" and the rights of everyone "to talk about their public officials and issues of public concern without fear of prosecution."
Miller said he respects the court decision and won't appeal, noting his office has prevailed in two similar cases.
"This court based its decision on a factual determination of a specific political mailer," Miller said. "The facts of each case are different and I don't anticipate that this ruling will prevent us in any way from enforcing the rules moving forward."
During then-Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson's campaign for state Senate in 2012, the group sent mailers targeting him for his co-sponsorship in the Assembly of a 2011 renewable energy bill, AB416, that critics claimed would have cost utility customers a potential rate increase of $1 billion.
The secretary of state sued, arguing the fliers constituted "express advocacy" against the North Las Vegas Democrat, thereby requiring the group to register and file disclosure documents under state law.
But the group argued the fliers didn't urge people to vote against or defeat Atkinson. Without such direct words, the group argued there is no express advocacy and disclosure requirements do not apply.
In his Oct. 17 ruling, Estes said the law cited in Miller's complaint doesn't apply because the statute addresses political action committees and entities making expenditures "on behalf" of a candidate.
"There can be no argument whatsoever that the fliers were sent on behalf of Assemblyman Atkinson," Estes wrote in his Oct. 17 ruling. He said the secretary of state's claim that the meaning of "on behalf" of a candidate should be interpreted to mean "about" a candidate was a "strained argument."
Additionally, Estes said Miller's suit failed to identify who benefited from AFP's attacks against Atkinson.
"Certainly many people benefited by mailing fliers, even the post office," the judge said. "Simply because an entity may benefit from a political activity, it is not a given that the activity was done on the beneficiaries' behalf."