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Akins v. FEC (92-1864/00-1478)

Summary

On September 29, 1995, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FEC's use of a "major purpose test" to narrow the definition of "political committee" was valid, that its application of the "major purpose test" in this case was reasonable, and that its investigation into the matters raised by appellants was adequate. The court therefore affirmed the district court's ruling dismissing appellants' complaint that the FEC's actions were contrary to law.

On December 6, 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed the district court's decision.

On June 1, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Mr. James E. Akins and several other former government officials had standing to challenge in federal court the Commission's dismissal of an administrative complaint they filed in 1989 against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The Supreme Court also referred questions about the membership status of AIPAC members to the Commission.

Background

On January 9, 1989, Mr. Akins and his associates filed an administrative complaint with the FEC alleging that AIPAC, an organization that lobbies public officials and disseminates information about federal candidates and officeholders, failed to register and report as a political committee, after it had made contributions to and expenditures on behalf of federal candidates in excess of $1,000.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) defines a political committee as any committee, association or other group that receives contributions or makes expenditures to influence federal elections in excess of $1,000 during a calendar year. 2 U.S.C. §431(4)(A). However, a statutory exception to the definition of expenditure allows membership organizations to make disbursements of more than $1,000 for campaign-related communications to their members, without their counting as contributions or expenditures.

AIPAC claimed that its communications to its members fell within this exception and, therefore, that it did not have to register as a political committee or disclose any of its financial activities to the FEC.

The FEC did not agree. In its view, AIPAC's disbursements did qualify as expenditures because its members did not qualify as members under the Act. The Commission, nonetheless, concluded AIPAC was not subject to the registration and disclosure rules applicable to political committees. The Commission believed that, because AIPAC's major purpose was not influencing federal elections, it did not qualify as a political committee even though it had made expenditures in excess of $1,000. The Commission dismissed the complaint.

District and appellate courts decisions

Mr. Akins and the other plaintiffs filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia charging that the FEC failed to proceed on the administrative complaint and challenging the Commission's interpretation of what constitutes a political committee. The district court ruled in favor of the FEC, agreeing with the "major purpose" test-that an organization that receives contributions or makes expenditures of more than $1,000 becomes a political committee only if its major purpose is the influencing of federal elections.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling, but an en banc panel of the same appellate court reversed the district court decision. The en banc panel, referencing both Buckley v. Valeo and FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc., found that the major purpose test can only be applied to organizations that make independent expenditures, not contributions, which is what was in question in the administrative complaint against AIPAC. The court also rejected the Commission's argument that the appellants lacked standing to bring their claim to federal court. On behalf of the FEC, the solicitor general appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court focused its opinion on the three-pronged test of standing-which a plaintiff must demonstrate to show there is a "case" or "controversy" under Article III of the U.S. Constitution-injury in fact, causation and redressability. The high court also found that the plaintiffs' inability to obtain information about AIPAC's campaign-related finances satisfied prudential standing because it was the kind of injury that the Act seeks to address.

Injury in fact. The Supreme Court found that the injury in fact in this case was that the plaintiffs were prevented from obtaining information about AIPAC's donors and the organization's campaign-related contributions and expenditures. It said that there is no reason to doubt that this information would have helped the plaintiffs evaluate candidates for public office, especially those candidates who received assistance from AIPAC. Thus, the court said, the injury in this case is both "concrete" and "particular." The FEC argued that the lawsuit involved only a "generalized grievance" shared by many (a kind of grievance for which standing usually is not conferred); the Supreme Court disagreed. In such cases of "generalized grievance," the court said, the harm is usually "of an abstract and indefinite nature"-not the kind of concrete harm that the court found here.

The court concluded that, "[T]he informational injury at issue here, directly related to voting, the most basic of political rights, is sufficiently concrete and specific such that the fact that it is widely shared does not deprive Congress of constitutional power to authorize its vindication in the federal courts."

Causation and redressability. The high court also found that the harm asserted by the plaintiffs was "fairly traceable" to the FEC's decision to dismiss its administrative complaint, and that the courts have the power to redress this harm.

The Supreme Court also rejected the FEC's argument that, because the agency's decision not to undertake an enforcement action is generally an area not subject to judicial review, 2 U.S.C. § 437g(a)(8) should be interpreted narrowly.

"Major purpose" test

With regard to the "major purpose" test, the Supreme Court referred the matter back to the FEC because of the uncertainty of the "membership" issue as applied to AIPAC.

Source:   FEC Record —July 1998; February 1997; December 1995; and May 1994, p. 4.

Akins v. FEC, No. 92-1864 (JLG) (D.D.C. Aug. 11, 1993) (on motion for amended complaint); (D.D.C. Dec. 8, 1993); (D.D.C. Mar. 30, 1994) (opinion); 66 F.3d 348 (D.C. Cir. 1995), rev'd, 101 F.3d 731 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (en banc), vacated and remanded, 118 S. Ct. 1777 (1998).

Documents

Supreme Court

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District Court (DC) (00-1478)

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District Court (DC) (92-1864)

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