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Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee v. FEC (96-2184, 97-5160 and 97-5161)


On November 25, 1996, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied a request from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) to find that the FEC violated the Federal Election Campaign Act when it failed to take action on an administrative complaint the DSCC had filed with the Commission.

The DSCC filed the lawsuit against the FEC after the agency had failed to act on its administrative complaint against the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) within 120 days. 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(8)(A).

On April 10, 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit remanded these two cases to the district court after finding that the question of standing had not been resolved.

On October 18, 1999, the U.S. District Court concluded that the DSCC had constitutional standing to litigate these cases.


The DSCC filed its administrative complaint in 1993 and followed it with a supplemental complaint in 1995. The complaints alleged that the NRSC had made at least $187,000 in illegal "soft money" expenditures to influence the Senate election of a Republican candidate in Georgia. The NRSC did this, the DSCC alleged, by funneling the money through four nonprofit organizations that were allegedly closely aligned with the Republican Party.

In April 1996, the DSCC asked the court to order the FEC to act on its administrative complaints. The court found the FEC's delay was contrary to law and told the agency to move forward with the case. It also told the DSCC to file another lawsuit if the FEC did not take action.

The DSCC did just that. In September 1996, it filed suit, asking the court again to order the FEC to complete the consideration of its complaint within 30 days or give the DSCC the authority to file a civil action against the NRSC. In denying the DSCC's request, the court said the FEC's conduct did not yet constitute a failure to act that was contrary to law. Further, the FEC provided the court and the DSCC with a chronology of its actions taken over the past 15 months.

The court also based its ruling, in part, on the FEC's considerable work load, lack of resources and competing priorities. In particular, it noted the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee case, which was handed down in June 1996 and which invalidated part of the FEC's regulation governing expenditures by national and state party committees. That ruling, the court said, added an "additional layer of complexity" to the DSCC's allegations against the NRSC.

The court noted that the statute of limitations period was coming to a close with regard to the DSCC's administrative complaint. Therefore, the court ordered the FEC to file status reports on its progress on the administrative complaint every 30 days (the first report was due December 10, 1996) and scheduled a March 1997 status conference for the FEC and the DSCC in the event that the matter was not resolved by then.

After waiting an additional four months and nearing the five-year statute of limitations for this case, the DSCC filed a motion for summary judgment, citing the FEC's "near glacial pace" in the investigation and arguing again that the agency's actions were contrary to law.

On May 30, 1997, the court granted the DSCC's motion and ordered the FEC to take action, within 30 days, on the committee's administrative complaint. The court also stated that if the FEC failed to take action within 30 days, then the DSCC could initiate its own lawsuit against the NRSC pursuant to 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(8)(C).

Arguments from the Commission

The FEC contended that it was moving forward with the investigation of the DSCC's complaint and that it was "conducting a careful and deliberate investigation of constitutionally sensitive and factually complex issues arising from a national party's payments to independent issue advocacy groups." The FEC also argued that, without sufficient time to conduct a thorough investigation, its five commissioners would not be able to make an informed decision as to whether there was probable cause to believe that a violation of the Act had occurred. The FEC added that certain witnesses were challenging the Commission's discovery requests.

District court decision

The standard for evaluating administrative delay is whether an agency has acted reasonably and in a manner that is not arbitrary or capricious.[1] To measure this, the courts use several criteria described in Rose v. FEC and Telecommunications Research & Action Center v. FCC.

Using those criteria, the court concluded that the FEC's delay-taking more than four years from when the administrative complaint was filed and nearly two years from the Commission's "reason to believe" determination to decide whether there was probable cause to believe a violation of the Act had occurred-was unreasonable.

The court said that the FEC could no longer claim that the Supreme Court's decision in the Colorado case complicated its investigation. The court also cited the impending five-year mark for the case, and said that litigation delays resulting from motions to quash FEC subpoenas were foreseeable and provided no acceptable excuse for the delay.

The court concluded that the FEC's failure to investigate and make a "probable cause" determination in a reasonable time frame was contrary to law under 2 U.S.C. §437g(a)(8)(C). It ordered the Commission to conform its conduct with the court's declaration within 30 days. Subsequently, on June 20, 1997, the Commission appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Appeals court decision

The appeals court remanded both cases to the district court to determine whether the DSCC had standing to sue the Commission under §437g(a)(8). In citing the issue of standing, the appeals court acknowledged that the question had come up only on appeal and mainly through an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief. The appeals court based its ruling on a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment, which "seems to hold that before deciding the merits (of a case), federal courts must always decide Article III (of the U.S. Constitution) standing whenever it is in doubt." Because some doubt has now been raised, the appeals court remanded the cases to the district court to address the standing question. The DSCC must present evidence that it satisfied the three-pronged test of standing-injury in fact, causation and redressability. With regard to redressability, the court said that the standing analysis may well have to depend on the Supreme Court's decision in Akins v. FEC.[2]

District court decision

On remand, the district court decided that, in the first case, the DSCC did not qualify as a "prevailing party" as defined in the Equal Access to Justice Act, and therefore vacated its earlier decision to award the DSCC attorney's fees. The court did reconfirm its prior order in the second case that found the Commission to have unreasonably delayed taking action on the administrative complaint filed by the DSCC and required the Commission to conclude the matter within 30 days.


[1] Common Cause v. FEC, 489 F. Supp. 738, 744 (D.D.C. 1980).

[2] In the Akins case, several former government officials filed a lawsuit against the FEC after it dismissed an administrative complaint they had filed. Among the issues discussed at the Supreme Court was whether these former officials had standing to initiate this lawsuit.

Source:   FEC Record—January 2000; June 1998; August 1997; and January 1997. DSCC v. FEC, 139 F.3d 951 (D.C. Cir. April 10, 1998).


District Court (DC)

Court decisions:

Related documents: