This summer, not long after Washington State attorney general Bob Ferguson filed suit against Facebook over the company's failure to disclose data on local political ads, Facebook attorneys yanked Ferguson's lawsuit out of Washington State courts and into federal court.
Last week, in response to a motion from Ferguson's office, Federal District Court judge James Robart blocked Facebook's attempt to keep on fighting in federal court, writing that Washington State has an obvious and significant interest in acting to "ensure transparency in Washington campaigns and elections," and stating that Facebook had "cherry-picked" facts related to The Stranger's connection to Ferguson's lawsuit, thus creating a "fundamental flaw" in Facebook's arguments for federal consideration.
Those flawed arguments, according to Judge Robart, rose out of Facebook's attempt to claim that Washington State is not actually "the real party in interest" in Ferguson's election transparency lawsuit. Instead, Facebook claimed, I was the real party in interest, along with citizen activist Conner Edwards.
Both Edwards and I have called attention to Facebook's failure to provide election ad data in accordance with long-standing Washington State transparency laws, and Ferguson cited our experiences in his suit.
Thus, Facebook argued, Ferguson's entire lawsuit was brought on our behalf.
If this were true, it could have forced Ferguson's case to be heard in federal court, which has jurisdiction over lawsuits in which more than $75,000 is on the line—definitely the case here—and where the real parties in interest are citizens of different states. (Edwards and I reside in Washington State, while Facebook is definitely "not a citizen of Washington," according to company lawyers, because Facebook is incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in California.)
But Judge Robart, of the Western Washington US District Court located in Seattle, rejected Facebook's argument.
He sided instead with Attorney General Ferguson's office, which had argued that although Ferguson's lawsuit does cite evidence of Facebook failing to provide me and Edwards with specific local election ad records, the overall aim of the lawsuit is to enforce Washington State's transparency laws for the benefit of all Washingtonians—not just me and Edwards.
"The fundamental flaw in Facebook’s argument is its focus on Mr. Sanders and Mr. Edwards," Judge Robart wrote. "The fact that two Washington citizens were denied access to records and brought the issue to the attention of the State is irrelevant to the determination of whether the State is a real party in interest...
"Indeed, the State explicitly brought this suit on its own behalf to assert its sovereign interests in ensuring the fairness and transparency of state elections."
With that solid endorsement of a state's right to police its own elections, Judge Robart kicked this fight back into Washington State courts.
Facebook has not yet responded to questions about whether it will seek to appeal Judge Robart's ruling. But a company lawyer recently told state officials that Facebook believes it's immune from Washington State's laws on political ad transparency because of a controversial federal law dating to 1996. This may be one reason Facebook had hoped to proceed in federal court.
If convicted in Washington State courts of violating local election ad transparency laws, Facebook could be on the hook for tens of thousands or even millions of dollars in fines.