skip navigation
Here's how you know US flag signifying that this is a United States Federal Government website

An official website of the United States government

Here's how you know

Dot gov

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.


Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you've safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Clark v. FEC and The Commission on Presidential Debates


On March 10, 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in the FEC's favor, granting its motion for summary affirmance in this case and denying the motion of John P. Clark and the Green Party USA for emergency summary reversal. The ruling upholds the district court's denial of a motion by Mr. Clark, other individual voters and the Green Party to intervene in a suit brought by the Natural Law Party (NLP) and its presidential and vice-presidential candidates against the FEC and the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

This case stemmed from an October 4, 1996, ruling from this same court that upheld a lower court ruling and dismissed lawsuits filed against the FEC and the CPD by the NLP and the presidential and vice presidential candidates running under the Reform Party banner. Both the NLP and the Reform Party candidates had sought to participate in the presidential debates being sponsored by the CPD. The CPD excluded the candidates-the NLP's Dr. John Hagelin and Mike Tompkins and the Reform Party's H. Ross Perot and Pat Choate-from the debates, saying that the minor party candidates did not meet the criteria for participation.


On September 6, 1996, the NLP filed an administrative complaint with the FEC and, on September 13, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, contending that the CPD had violated FEC rules governing nonpartisan candidate debates. 11 CFR 113.10. Specifically, the NLP suit asked the court to impose a temporary restraining order and issue preliminary and permanent injunctions to prevent the CPD from using any debate selection criteria that did not comply with FEC rules. In the alternative, it asked the court to order the FEC, prior to the debates, to take action on its administrative complaint.

The Green Party, Mr. Clark and seven other individuals, all independent voters or supporters of the Green Party USA and its 1996 presidential candidate Ralph Nader, filed a motion for intervention on September 27, 1996. The district court found that Mr. Clark and the others "show[ed] their curiosity in the case,[ed] to demonstrate sufficient grounds for intervention." On September 30, the court therefore denied the motion for intervention. However, it did grant Mr. Clark leave to file a brief as a friend of the court.

On November 22-more than a month after the appeals court had ruled in this case and weeks after the debates and 1996 elections had taken place-Mr. Clark filed a notice of appeal of the district court ruling. Mr. Clark had not participated as a friend of the court in the appeals process, nor in a subsequent and unsuccessful petition from Mr. Hagelin for an expedited rehearing and rehearing en banc.

FEC arguments and appeals court order

First, the FEC argued that the appellants had failed to demonstrate a common question of law, a requirement for permissive intervention under Fed. R. Civ. P. 24.[1] Among other things, Mr. Clark's complaint claimed that the CPD's debate selection criteria violated unspecified sections of the U.S. Constitution. Mr. Hagelin's complaint, on the other hand, had claimed that the CPD's criteria violated FEC regulations at 11 CFR 110.13. Further, the FEC argued that there were no common "questions of fact," as required by Rule 24(b), between Mr. Clark's and Mr. Hagelin's complaints. In addition, the FEC said that the Clark appellants had not shown an independent jurisdictional basis for their claims. The would-be plaintiffs did not even include a presidential or vice-presidential candidate who might have claimed exclusion from the debates.

Timeliness was also at issue, the FEC argued. Rule 24(b) states that a court must consider "whether the intervention will unduly delay or prejudice the adjudication of the rights of the original parties." Because the debates were to begin shortly after the original complaints were filed, the district court set about adjudicating the matter on an expedited schedule, but Mr. Clark's motion was not filed until the last day of the briefing schedule.

Finally, the FEC argued that because the district court granted Mr. Clark the option of filing a brief as a friend of the court, it did not abuse its discretion in denying his initial motion to intervene. The appeals court found that the merits of the parties' positions were so clear that they warranted summary action. It held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the appellants' motion to intervene.


[1] Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24(b) states that would-be intervenors must timely file their applications and demonstrate that their claim or defense and the "main action" have a question of law or fact in common. In addition, they must show an independent jurisdictional basis for their claims.

Source:   FEC Record— May 1997