Faucher v. FEC
On June 29, 1990, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine ruled that 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5)(i), which concerned the publication and public distribution of voter guides by corporations, was unauthorized by the Federal Election Campaign Act. In the court's view, the rule was invalid because it applied "issue advocacy" as a factor in determining whether a voter guide constituted a prohibited expenditure.
The court denied, however, a request from plaintiffs for injunctive relief to prevent the FEC and the U.S. Attorney General from taking enforcement action against plaintiffs' proposed 1990 publications.
On March 21, 1991, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court decision. On October 7, 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the FEC's petition for a writ of certiorari.
The Maine Right to Life Committee, Inc. (MRLC), a nonprofit membership corporation, and Sandra Faucher, an MRLC board member, filed a similar suit in the same court in 1985, Faucher v. FEC, 708 F. Supp. 9 (D. Me. 1989). In that suit, MRLC and Ms. Faucher also challenged 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5), which permits corporations to prepare and distribute to the public nonpartisan voter guides consisting of questions posed to candidates on campaign issues and the candidates' responses. Anticipating that the proposed MRLC voter guide would not comply with the FEC's standards for nonpartisanship, plaintiffs asked the court to invalidate the regulation and issue an injunction preventing the FEC from enforcing the rule. On February 24, 1989, the court dismissed the suit on the ground that plaintiffs first needed to obtain an FEC advisory opinion on the legality of the proposed publication. Plaintiffs then sought an advisory opinion, which was issued on February 14, 1990 (AO 1989-28).
In AO 1989-28, the Commission concluded that MRLC could not use general treasury funds to distribute to the general public a newsletter containing a proposed voter guide.
First, because MRLC had a policy of accepting corporate contributions and had, in fact, accepted such contributions, it failed to qualify for the exemption granted to certain nonprofit corporations as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc. (MCFL) v. FEC, 479 U.S. 238 (1986). In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition against corporate spending was unconstitutional as applied to nonprofit corporations that satisfied certain criteria.
Second, MRLC's proposed publication did not comply with the criteria for nonpartisan communications set forth at 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5). Specifically, the publication favored a pro-life position, although the rule states that a nonpartisan voter guide may not suggest or favor any position on the issues covered by the candidate survey. 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5)(i)(C) and (D). (For a more detailed summary of this opinion, see the March 1990 Record.)
On April 18, 1990, MRLC and Faucher filed a second suit, again challenging 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5) on the grounds that the regulation was beyond the authority of the FEC and was unconstitutionally vague. Plaintiffs also sought a declaratory judgment that MRLC's proposed 1990 publications were permissible under the Federal Election Campaign Act. They further sought an injunction prohibiting the FEC and the U.S. Attorney General from enforcing the voter guide regulations with regard to MRLC's proposed activity.
In its June 29 decision, the court found that 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5) was invalid because it focused on "issue advocacy." The court found that plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge other aspects of the rule and denied plaintiffs' request for declaratory and injunctive relief.
Invalidity of 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5)
The court first cited 2 U.S.C. §441b as the statutory basis for the regulation in question. Section 441b prohibits "any corporation whatever" from making "a contribution or expenditure in connection with any [federal] election...." The court, however, found that the Supreme Court, in its MCFL decision, had limited the scope of the prohibition to expenditures that "expressly advocate" the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.
Under the regulation in question, 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5), a corporation may use its treasury funds to distribute a voter guide to the general public only if the guide is "nonpartisan." Included among the factors defining "nonpartisan" is that the wording does not favor any position, or express an editorial opinion, on the issues covered by the candidate survey. 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5)(i)(C) and (D). The court found that "[t]his approach ignores the clear language of FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life that issue advocacy by a corporation cannot constitutionally be prohibited and that only express advocacy...is constitutionally within the statute's prohibition."
The court therefore concluded that the regulation, "with its focus on issue advocacy, is contrary to the statute as the United States Supreme Court has interpreted it and, therefore, beyond the power of the FEC."
The court ruled that MRLC did not have standing to challenge another aspect of the regulation: its failure to incorporate in explicit language the MCFL holding that the statute cannot constitutionally limit even express advocacy by a certain type of nonprofit membership corporation. MRLC lacked standing because it did not qualify as the type of corporation covered under the MCFL exemption. One of the essential factors for the exemption is that the nonprofit corporation must not receive contributions from business corporations and must have a policy against accepting such contributions. Although MRLC received "comparatively modest" amounts from corporate businesses, without an explicit policy against accepting such contributions, organizations like MRLC could serve as a conduit for corporate contributions.
The court also declined to address plaintiffs' challenge that 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5) does not explicitly incorporate the statutory "news story" exemption at 2 U.S.C. §431(9)(B)(i), which exempts news media costs from the definition of "expenditure." The court said it was "satisfied that the MRLC does not fit within this media exemption" and that therefore plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the regulation on this score. (Another FEC regulation, 11 CFR 100.8(b)(2), parallels the statutory exemption.)
Finally, the court found that plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge 11 CFR 114.4(b)(5)(ii). Plaintiffs had asserted that the regulation was unconstitutionally vague in directing that certain publications "not favor one candidate or political party over another." Since that portion of the regulation affects only nonprofit, tax-exempt corporations that do not "support, endorse or oppose candidates or political parties," it does not apply to MRLC, which has established a separate segregated fund to engage in such activity. (In AO 1984-17, the Commission held that a tax-exempt corporation becomes an organization that supports, endorses or opposes candidates if it establishes a separate segregated fund that does so.)
Denial of declaratory and injunctive relief
Finding that the issue was not ripe for consideration, the district court denied plaintiffs' request for a declaratory judgment that their proposed 1990 voter guide was permissible under the Act and also denied their request for injunctive relief to prevent any enforcement action against their proposed 1990 publications. Plaintiffs said that the 1990 publications would be substantially similar to the 1988 publication, but the court was "not prepared to base declaratory and injunctive relief upon a 1988 publication, when minor changes could make that ruling wholly inapplicable to the actual 1990 publications."
The court stated: "In a context where words and nuances may be critical, I do not have the actual language and format of the publications. Given the FEC's enforcement role,...such [declaratory and injunctive] relief would unduly interfere with the overall ability of that agency to conduct investigations of alleged violations, might well delay it in gathering important information and would interfere with the congressional goal of resolving specific election disputes through conciliation....An injunction may in fact be wholly unnecessary. Finally, any hardship to the parties in finding this issue not ripe is minimal, given the plaintiffs' historical practice of publishing despite any uncertainty."
The plaintiffs did not appeal the district court's denial of the injunction or rejection of their constitutional challenges. The FEC, however, filed an appeal seeking reversal of the court's invalidation of section 114.4(b)(5)(i).
Court of appeals
In affirming the district court's judgment invalidating the Commission's regulation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the first circuit first examined the scope of the statutory prohibition, section 441b(a). (The provision prohibits "any corporation whatever" from making "a contribution or expenditure in connection with any [federal] election....") The court acknowledged that "the statute appears to allow for a very broad application," but stated that the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo narrowed the scope of the prohibition: "The Supreme Court, recognizing that such broad language as found in section 441b(a) creates the potential for first amendment violations, sought to avoid future conflict by explicitly limiting the statute's prohibition to 'express advocacy.'" The court went on: "This express advocacy test was again embraced by the Supreme Court in the more recent case of Massachusetts Citizens for Life."
The court rejected the FEC's argument that the language in the Supreme Court's MCFL opinion which appeared to limit section 441b(a) was dictum and therefore not binding. The court also rejected the FEC's alternative argument that even if section 441b(a) were restricted to express advocacy expenditures, the FEC's voter guide rules were properly directed at advocacy of candidates and did not appreciably infringe upon a corporation's ability to advocate its position on issues. The court stated: "In our view, trying to discern when issue advocacy in a voter guide crosses the threshold and becomes express advocacy invites just the sort of constitutional questions the Court sought to avoid in adopting the bright-line express advocacy test in Buckley."