Justia Election Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
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CREW filed a citizen complaint with the Federal Election Commission against New Models, a now-defunct non-profit entity, alleging violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (FECA) registration and reporting requirements for “political committees,” 52 U.S.C. 30109(a)(1). After an initial investigation, the Commission deadlocked 2–2 on whether to proceed; an affirmative vote of four commissioners is required to initiate enforcement proceedings. With only two votes in favor of an enforcement action against New Models, the Commission dismissed CREW’s complaint. Two Commissioners explained that New Models did not qualify as a “political committee” under FECA but stated they were also declining to proceed with enforcement in an "exercise of ... prosecutorial discretion,” given the age of the activity and the fact that the organization appears no longer active.The district court granted the Commission summary judgment, reasoning that a nonenforcement decision is not subject to judicial review if the Commissioners who voted against enforcement “place[] their judgment squarely on the ground of prosecutorial discretion.” The Commission’s “legal analyses are reviewable only if they are the sole reason for the dismissal of an administrative complaint.” The D.C. Circuit affirmed. While FECA allows a private party to challenge a nonenforcement decision by the Commission if it is “contrary to law,” this decision was based in part on prosecutorial discretion and is not reviewable. View "Citizens for Responsibility v. Federal Election Committee" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit challenging a Federal Election Commission Rule requiring some donations known as independent expenditures (IEs) to be publicly disclosed. In the underlying case, plaintiff brought an enforcement complaint before the Commission alleging that a well-known IE-making entity, Crossroads GPS, had violated the Rule by failing to disclose certain contributors.The DC Circuit affirmed the district court's determination agreeing with plaintiffs that the Rule conflicts with the plain terms of the Federal Election Campaign Act's broader disclosure requirements. After addressing various jurisdictional and procedural arguments, the court held that the Rule's requirement that IE makers disclose only those contributions aimed at supporting a specific IE conflicts with FECA's unambiguous terms in two ways: first, the Rule disregards 52 U.S.C. 30104(c)(1)'s requirement that IE makers disclose each donation from contributors who give more than $200, regardless of any connection to IEs eventually made; and second, by requiring disclosure only of donations linked to a particular IE, the Rule impermissibly narrows subsection (c)(2)(C)'s requirement that contributors be identified if their donations are "made for the purpose of furthering an independent expenditure." View "Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington v. Federal Election Commission" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that the CPD routinely endorses and supports Republican and Democratic nominees at the expense of third-party candidates, and that the CPD uses subjective and biased criteria for selecting debate participants. Specifically, plaintiffs challenged the 15% polling criterion, which the CPD used to determine eligibility for participation in the debates preceding the 2012 Presidential election. Plaintiffs also challenged the Commission's denial of its request to initiate a rulemaking to change its rules to prohibit debate sponsors from using public opinion polls as a criterion for eligibility.Applying de novo review, the DC Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the Commission. The court held that plaintiffs failed to show that the Commission's decisionmaking was arbitrary and capricious where the Commission offered detailed explanations in support of its view that plaintiffs failed to show impermissible bias against independent candidates or in favor of candidates from the two major political parties. The court also held that the Commission acted reasonably in determining that a 15% polling threshold is an objective requirement. Finally, because the court has found that the Commission acted reasonably in reaching its decisions, the court held that the Commission did not err by electing not to initiate a rulemaking. View "Level the Playing Field v. Federal Election Commission" on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit affirmed the Commission's dismissal of three administrative complaints alleging violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act's disclosure requirements. After determining that plaintiffs had Article III standing, the court held that the Commission provided a reasonable basis for the dismissals. In this case, the Commission (through the statement of the controlling commissioners) provided a sufficiently reasonable basis for its decision not to investigate plaintiffs' straw donor allegations. Furthermore, the Commission provided a reasonable basis for its decision not to investigate plaintiffs' political committee allegations. View "Campaign Legal Center v. Federal Election Commission" on Justia Law

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Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap filed suit seeking access to documents from the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The DC Circuit held that, because the emails at issue were neither "similar" to the "examples" of covered documents listed in the December 2017 injunction opinion, nor "substantive disclosures" within the plain meaning of that opinion, they were not among the disclosure obligations imposed by that injunction. Therefore, the court held that the January 2019 order that required their release changed the legal relationship between the parties and hence was immediately appealable.On the merits, the court held that Secretary Dunlap could not clearly and indisputably show that the emails he sought fell within the work of the Commission, and thus the district court lacked jurisdiction to entertain his request for their disclosure. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court's January 28, 2019 order insofar as it required the release of such emails. View "Dunlap v. Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity" on Justia Law

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Petitioners sought review of the SEC's order approving Rule 2030, which regulates the political contributions of those members of FINRA, prohibiting a placement agent from accepting compensation for soliciting government business from certain candidates and elected officials within two years of having contributed to such an official's electoral campaign or to the transition or inaugural expenses of a successful candidate.The DC Circuit held that NYGOP has standing, but denied its petition on the merits, holding that the SEC acted within its authority in adopting Rule 2030; doing so was not arbitrary and capricious because the SEC had sufficient evidence it was needed; and the Rule does not violate the First Amendment in view of our holding in Blount v. SEC, 61 F.3d 938 (1995), in which the court upheld a functionally identical rule against the same challenge. View "New York Republican State Committee v. SEC" on Justia Law

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The LNC filed suit alleging that the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which imposes limits on both donors and recipients of political contributions, violates its First Amendment rights. This case stemmed from a dispute regarding how the LNC can spend the $235,000 Joseph Shaber left to it when he passed away. The LNC argued that FECA violates its First Amendment rights in two ways: first, by imposing any limits on the LNC's ability to accept Shaber's contribution, given that he is dead; and second, by permitting donors to triple the size of their contributions, but only if the recipient party spends the money on specified categories of expenses.The DC Circuit held that the current version of FECA—both its application of contribution limits to Shaber's bequest and its use of a two-tiered contribution limit—has achieved a constitutionally permissible balance. Although the court denied the Commission's motion to dismiss for lack of standing, the court rejected LNC's constitutional challenges on the merits. View "Libertarian National Committee v. FEC" on Justia Law

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In this redacted appeal, the DC Circuit affirmed the district court's decision refusing to enjoin the FEC from releasing information identifying a trust and its trustee in connection with a misreported federal campaign contribution. Plaintiffs claim that the Commission's release of documents identifying them would violate the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).The court held that FECA's provisions and the regulations thereunder did not bar the disclosure and authorized the Commission's action; Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), foreclosed plaintiffs' claim that the First Amendment barred the Commission from publicly identifying them; and FOIA could not be used to prevent the Commission from publicly revealing plaintiffs' identities. View "Doe 1 v. FEC" on Justia Law

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Under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, candidates for certain offices, including the Presidency, must file financial disclosures with the Federal Election Commission, 5 U.S.C. 103(e). A presidential candidate’s financial disclosure must include the “identity and category of the total liabilities owed to any creditor.” Reviewing officials determined that then-candidate Trump’s disclosures were “in apparent compliance.” Lovitky alleged that the disclosure included both personal and business liabilities, in violation of the Act, which “requires disclosure of only those liabilities for which candidates are themselves liable . . . or for which the spouse or dependent child of the candidate are liable.” Candidate Trump, Lovitky argued, “obscured his liabilities by commingling them with the liabilities of business entities.” Lovitky sought an order requiring amendment of the report.The D.C. Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The only possible basis of jurisdiction, the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. 1361, refers to actions “to compel an officer of the United States to perform his duty.” The Ethics Act obligation is not a “duty” under the Mandamus Act, which includes only those obligations that pertain to a defendant’s public office. Detaching the duty from the office could lead to serious incongruities. For example, where an officer is sued in his official capacity, FRCP 25(d) automatically substitutes as defendant the official’s successor in office, so that, under the Ethics Act, a public official could be compelled to perform the personal financial disclosure duties of his predecessor. View "Lovitky v. Trump" on Justia Law

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Petitioners, CREW and its executive director, filed suit alleging that the Commission acted "contrary to law" in 2015 when it dismissed their administrative complaint against an unincorporated association. On appeal, CREW raised the judicial review provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The DC Circuit affirmed, holding that the Commission's dismissal of the complaint constituted the "agency action" supporting the district court's jurisdiction. In this case, the district court held that the Commission's explanation of its failure to prosecute was a rational exercise of prosecutorial discretion. The court dismissed CREW's arguments to the contrary. The court addressed remaining issues and the dissent's position before affirming the judgment. View "Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. FEC" on Justia Law