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California Medical Association v. FEC


This suit was precipitated by an FEC enforcement proceeding in which the California Medical Association (CMA), an unincorporated professional association, and CALPAC, a political committee, were respondents. On April 19, 1979, the FEC had found "probable cause to believe" CMA had violated 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(1)(C) by making contributions exceeding $5,000 to CALPAC, which CALPAC had accepted. When it was unable to reach a conciliation agreement with the respondents, the Commission filed suit against them on May 22, 1979, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Civil Action No. C79-U97-WHO).[1]

Claims filed against Commission

Anticipating the FEC enforcement action, CMA filed a separate suit against the FEC on May 7, 1979, challenging the constitutionality of those provisions of the Act it had allegedly violated. (Civil Action No. 79-4426) Specifically, CMA asked the district court to certify the following constitutional questions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit:

  • Whether 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(1)(C), which limits contributions to multicandidate committees to $5,000 per year, per contributor, abridges First Amendment rights of free speech and association. In particular, does §441a(a)(1)(C) unconstitutionally limit contributions by an unincorporated association (CMA) to a political committee (CALPAC) for the purpose of establishing, administering or soliciting contributions to the committee; and
  • Whether 2 U.S.C. §441b(b)(2)(C), which permits labor organizations and corporations (but not unincorporated associations) to pay costs of establishing, administering and soliciting funds to a separate segregated fund, abridges the equal protection provisions of the Fifth Amendment.

Ruling of appeals court

In its opinion of May 23, the appeals court, sitting en banc, rejected all the constitutional claims asserted by CMA. Relying on the Supreme Court's decision in Buckley v. Valeo, the court found that the contribution limits imposed only inconsequential restrictions on rights of free speech. The court observed that these restrictions were minimal compared to the "potent alternative means of expression" available to unincorporated associations like CMA. It noted that CMA, CALPAC and its members could make contributions and expenditures in connection with federal elections, as long as the per-candidate and per-committee contribution limits were respected. Further, CMA, its members and CALPAC could make unlimited independent expenditures to express their political views. Moreover, the court concluded that the contribution limits were supported by a compelling governmental interest, namely preventing the circumvention of the contribution limits, which were intended to minimize both the actuality and appearance of corruption in federal political campaigns.

The court also found that the Act did not abridge Fifth Amendment rights by discriminating against political activities of unincorporated associations. To the contrary, the court concluded that unincorporated associations like CMA are regulated to a lesser degree under the Act. While corporations and labor unions are prohibited from making any contributions or expenditures in connection with federal elections, and individuals are limited to total contributions of $25,000 per year, unincorporated associations have no overall limit imposed on the total amount they may contribute or expend in connection with federal elections. Unlike corporations and labor organizations, they may solicit contributions from anyone and make partisan communications to the general public.

Appeal to Supreme Court

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, filed on June 4, 1980, CMA reiterated the arguments which the appeals court had rejected and restated its claim that the challenged provisions violated both First and Fifth Amendment rights. In challenging the constitutionality of limits on contributions to multicandidate committees, CMA argued that, in its Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court had not equated contributions to political committees with contributions to candidates. CMA maintained that "...contributions to political committees are functionally different from contributions to candidates."

In its Supreme Court brief, the FEC challenged appellants' raising of constitutional issues under 2 U.S.C. §437h, a provision by which the Supreme Court may expedite its handling of constitutional challenges to the federal election law. The Commission argued that the provision was "...enacted by Congress in 1974 for the specific purpose of facilitating the resolution of a major constitutional challenge to the Act prior to the 1976 general election." In the Commission's view, appellants sought to "...invoke the extraordinary process of 437h for the purpose of avoiding the Commission's enforcement procedures."

As to the constitutional issues raised in the suit, the Commission supported the decision of the appeals court, reiterating its arguments that the Act violated neither the First nor Fifth Amendment rights of appellants.

Supreme Court ruling

On June 26, 1981, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in California Medical Association v. FEC (Civil Action No. 79-1952) that affirmed the earlier decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In its opinion, the Court upheld the constitutionality of 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(1)(C), which limits contributions to a political committee to $5,000 per year, per contributor. The Court concluded that the challenged provision did not violate the First Amendment rights of appellants because it was an appropriate means by which Congress could seek to protect the integrity of the contribution restrictions upheld in Buckley v. Valeo (424 U.S. 1 (1976)). The Court said, "If First Amendment rights of a contributor are not infringed by limitations on the amount he may contribute to a campaign organization which advocates the views and candidacy of a particular candidate, the rights of a contributor are similarly not impaired by limits on the amount he may give to a multicandidate political committee, such as CALPAC, which advocates the views and candidacies of a number of candidates."

The Supreme Court also upheld the appeals court's ruling that Section 441a(a)(1)(C) did not violate appellants' equal protection rights under the Fifth Amendment. Appellants had unsuccessfully claimed that the provision allowed corporations and labor organizations to make unlimited contributions to their separate segregated funds while limiting to $5,000 a year the contributions an unincorporated association could make to the multicandidate committee it established. The Court held, however, that no equal protection violation existed. The Court stated, "Appellants' contention ignores the fact that the Act as a whole imposes far fewer restrictions on individuals and unincorporated associations than it does on corporations and unions. The differing restrictions placed on individuals and unincorporated associations, on the one hand, and on corporations and unions, on the other, reflect a congressional judgment that these entities have differing structures and purposes and that they therefore may require different forms of regulation in order to protect the integrity of the political process."

The Court found no merit, however, to the FEC's claim that the appellants' direct appeal to the Court (pursuant to Section 437h of the Act)[2] was inappropriate because an FEC enforcement proceeding was pending against appellants (pursuant to Section 437g of the Act). The Court found that neither the legislative history nor the statutory language of Sections 437g and 437h indicated that a direct appeal should be limited to situations where no enforcement proceeding was pending.


[1] In its October 21, 1980, opinion in FEC v. California Medical Association, the district court ordered CMA and CALPAC to pay the FEC civil penalties of $5,000 each.

[2] Section 437h provides for expedited handling of constitutional challenges to the Act. Section 437h(b), which granted the right of direct appeal to the Supreme Court, was repealed by Congress in 1988.

Source:   FEC RecordAugust 1981; and April 1981. California Medical Association v. FEC, 641 F.2d 619 (9th Cir. 1980) (en banc), aff'd, 453 U.S. 182 (1981).