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High Court backs anti-PPACA group in First Amendment case

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favor of a political group that attacked a Democratic member of Congress during the 2010 election cycle over his support for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). The court said the petitioners in the case, Susan B. Anthony List et al. vs. Driehaus (Case Number 13-193), can challenge an Ohio state law that makes lying during an election campaign a criminal offense.

A U.S. District Court ruled earlier that the political groups had not shown the state law would hurt their ability to express themselves. The court said the groups could not yet try to fight the law in federal court.

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that the case was not yet ripe for federal court action. The Supreme Court held that the case is ripe enough for the petitioners to qualify for federal court review under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which governs when the federal courts can intervene in “cases” and “controversies.”

“Denying prompt judicial review would impose a substantial hardship on petitioners, forcing them to choose between refraining from core political speech on the one hand and risking costly [election] commission proceedings and criminal prosecution on the other,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in an opinion for the court.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 6th Circuit, with orders for the appeals court to consider the case to be ready for action and to look to see whether the political groups pass the other Article III tests they must face to challenge the law in federal court.

The petitioner, the Susan B. Anthony List, opposes abortion. In a press release, the group said Steve Driehaus, who then represented part of Ohio in the House, had voted for a “health care bill that includes taxpayer-funded abortion.” The group tried to set up a billboard that would have delivered the following message: “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR tax-payer-funded abortion.”

Driehaus denied that he had voted for taxpayer-funded abortion. He accused the Susan B. Anthony List of violating an Ohio law that classifies making intentional false statements during a political campaign as a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months of imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000. A billboard company refused to sell billboard space to the Susan B. Anthony List because the Driehaus team threatened to take legal action, the petitioners allege.