Evoking the same reaction as the obituary which caused Mark Twain to infamously declare that the reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated, the liberal establishment rag “Quorum Report” reported Wednesday that the conservative group “King Street Patriots” had been ordered by an appellate court to “register as a PAC.” The online publication friendly to House Speaker Joe Straus and his consultants giddily reported a victory by the Texas Democratic Party and suggested, below the fold, that Empower Texans and other conservative groups could be subject to the very same ruling. The page’s headline read:

“Conservative group loses appeal in key PAC case – Third Court of Appeals agrees with lower court that King Street Patriots should register as a PAC.”

If that headline were true, such a ruling would have flown in the face of several US Supreme Court opinions, and would have been very important in the context of illegal rules which are currently being proposed by the Texas Ethics Commission, as well as in the context of hearings for Empower Texans before the TEC. (In which the Commission is alleging Empower Texans has already violated the laws that they are now writing. Seriously.)

The author of the post obviously did not even read the first page of the opinion they were describing, which begins: “This appeal is limited to facial challenges to the constitutionality of various Election Code provisions.” At that point, any educated reader would know that the ruling — no matter what it said on the subject — would not opine on the constitutionality of the laws as applied to King Street Patriots. Such an appeal could be a separate matter for the Court, at a later date.

Instead the appeal looked simply at whether the laws were unconstitutional in all applications. For example, a law declaring the national religion to be Quakerism and prescribing penalties for practicing other religions could be the subject of such a “facial challenge” and could be found in violation of the First Amendment prohibition on the establishment of a national religion without looking at whether or not the accused were actually Lutherans or Baptists.

While the opinion did find that all of the provisions of the election code challenged by the King Street Patriots were facially valid, meaning that there were contexts in which they could be applied constitutionally, the reasons the Court reached those conclusions actually appear beneficial for King Street Patriots and other vocal conservative groups.

In construing the state’s definition of “political committee,” the Court applied a common sense definition which effectively legally shuts down current efforts by the Texas Ethics Commission that run in the opposite direction. In the election code, political committees are defined as groups with “a principal purpose of accepting political contributions or making political expenditures.” Writing for the Court, Justice Melissa Goodwin applied what she described as the “common meaning” of “principal purpose” to determine that “‘Purpose’ means ‘[t]he object toward which one strives or for which something exists; goal; aim’,” and “‘Principal’ means ‘[f]irst, highest, or foremost in importance, rank, worth, or degree; chief.’”

In recent months the commissioners of the Texas Ethics Commission have, in an effort to resurrect vetoed legislation which would have threatened the privacy of donors to vocal conservative groups, argued that an organization could have several “principal purposes.”

This ruling effectively shuts those efforts down (to the extent that the commission has any interest in following the law). It also could have important implications for the Texas Home School Coalition in its litigation against the TEC in federal court in Lubbock, as well as in Empower Texans’ case before the TEC related to bogus sworn complaints alleging that Empower Texans is legally a political action committee.

Contrary to the conclusions of the hacks who work at Quorum Report, the 3rd Court of Appeals not only refrained from concluding that King Street Patriots was a PAC, they made it much less likely for any trial court on remand to draw that conclusion.

In a Dewey Defeats Truman moment for the 21st century, many remember when major news networks misreported that the Obamacare mandate had been struck down before being forced to correct themselves after reading further down in the US Supreme Court’s historic opinion. Unfortunately, the establishment media in Texas is much worse than even those working for the big networks. They are more biased and are largely incompetent to report on legal matters.

As Twain also once commented, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” Texans would be wise to read the reports of the establishment press with a healthy dose of skepticism and an eye towards their biases.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.