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Common Cause v. FEC (78-2135)


On April 30, 1980, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment in two cross motions filed by parties to the suit, Common Cause v. FEC (Civil Action No. 78-2135).


Common Cause had filed its motion for summary judgment in November 1978, requesting that the court rule the FEC had acted contrary to law in failing to take final action on Common Cause's administrative complaint within 90 days of its being filed. 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(9)(B)(ii). In its complaint, Common Cause had asserted that the American Medical Political Action Committee (AMPAC), the separate segregated fund of the American Medical Association (AMA), and the state political action committees of AMA's state affiliates constituted a single political committee by virtue of their affiliation. 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(5). Therefore, alleged Common Cause, AMPAC and its affiliated state PACs shared a single contribution limit of $5,000 per candidate, per election. Common Cause's complaint listed numerous instances in the 1976 Congressional elections where the combined contribution of AMPAC and an affiliated state PAC to a candidate had exceeded the $5,000 limit.[1]

At the time Common Cause filed its motion for summary judgment, the Commission had entered into conciliation agreements only with AMPAC and a few of the state PACs named in the June 1978 complaint. By fall of 1979, however, the Commission had entered into separate agreements with an additional five state PACs; between Fall 1979 and Spring 1980 the Commission entered into agreements with eleven other state PACs and was preparing to enter into 10 additional agreements. The court also noted that in February 1977 the Commission had broadened the scope of its initial investigation to include all of the AMA's state affiliates and their PACs. Moreover, the Commission had begun investigating four additional complaints which also alleged violations of the Act's contribution limits by AMPAC and its affiliated state PACs.

Common Cause nevertheless maintained that the FEC had acted contrary to law in not taking final action on its complaint within 90 days. The FEC, on the other hand, viewed the 90-day provision as jurisdictional, giving the court power to decide after the 90-day period whether or not the Commission had acted contrary to law.[2]

In addition to supporting the FEC's interpretation of the 90-day provision, the court noted that the determination of whether AMPAC and its state PACs were affiliated (i.e., whether they had been established, financed, maintained or controlled by the same entity) was a factual question requiring proof provided by extensive investigation. Therefore, the court did not find the FEC's efforts to collect further evidence to be an abuse of discretion. Moreover, the court found that the FEC's decision not to investigate combined contributions by state PACs affiliated with AMPAC (in addition to the combined AMPAC-State PAC contributions it had investigated) was not contrary to law since Common Cause had mentioned only one such occurrence among the 69 violations it had cited. The court did, however, order the Commission to either enter into conciliation agreements with the ten remaining respondents named in Common Cause's complaint within 30 days of the court's ruling or bring suit against them. The Commission did enter into conciliation agreements with the remaining respondents, and the court issued an order on June 13, 1980, dismissing the case.


[1] While this decision was pending, the court issued an order on August 10, 1979, directing the Commission to release to the plaintiff certain internal FEC communications regarding the administrative enforcement action that had been triggered by Common Cause's complaint. Among other things, the court ordered the documents to be released under court seal, and access to them was to be restricted to plaintiff's counsel and to senior officers of Common Cause. Disclosures to outside parties (including the respondents in the FEC enforcement action) were prohibited until a further order of the court. 83 F.R.D. 410 (D.D.C. 1979).

[2] In 1979 Congress amended §437g, expanding the period in which the Commission must act on a complaint from 90 days to 120 days.

Source:   FEC RecordAugust 1980. Common Cause v. FEC, 82 F.R.D. 59 (D.D.C.), 83 F.R.D. 410 (D.D.C. 1979), 489 F. Supp. 738 (D.D.C. 1980).