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Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FEC


On July 2, 1998, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the FEC's motion to dismiss this lawsuit challenging the agency's dismissal of an administrative complaint filed by Judicial Watch, Inc. The court remanded the case to the FEC and ordered it to decide whether to pursue the administrative complaint within 120 days.

On May 7, 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the lower court ruling and dismissed this case.


In February 1998, Judicial Watch filed this lawsuit after the Commission voted to take no action on its administrative complaint, which alleged that the White House, Democratic National Committee (DNC), Department of Commerce and Clinton administration had sold seats on foreign trade missions for large campaign contributions to the DNC and the Clinton/Gore 1996 reelection campaign. Judicial Watch contended that the contributions violated 18 U.S.C. §600, a criminal statute which makes it unlawful to promise any special benefit or treatment as a reward for political activities in support of or opposition to a particular candidate, election or political event.

District court decision

The FEC moved to dismiss this case for lack of standing. In order to establish standing, a plaintiff such as Judicial Watch must show that it has suffered an injury in fact, that there is a causal connection between the injury and the conduct being complained about and that it is likely that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. The FEC claimed that Judicial Watch failed to allege an injury flowing from the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act).

The court disagreed. It pointed out that, in FEC v. Akins, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that, for purposes of standing, an injury was created when a plaintiff failed to obtain information that had to be publicly disclosed. Thus, affected voters who do not have access to such information have standing to sue. The district court held that, in this case, information that trade mission seats may have been exchanged for contributions to the DNC and Clinton/Gore committee was "important and useful to voters."

The FEC also argued that Judicial Watch did not have standing because its administrative complaint failed to identify violations of the Act over which the Commission had jurisdiction. The complaint only made allegations of bribery, not of reporting violations. The court stated, however, that no plaintiff is required to supply the FEC with a "legal theory" under the Act in order for the agency to pursue an administrative complaint. "At minimum, the FEC, as an agency acting in the public interest, should not interpret complaints narrowly," the court stated.

The court went on to note that the matters outlined in the administrative complaint could raise reporting issues. The court said a contribution in exchange for participation in trade missions could be classified as an offset to a contribution, a refund of a contribution or a disbursement. The DNC and Clinton/Gore committee might have had an obligation to report such transactions.

The court further noted that the FEC failed to notify Judicial Watch that its administrative complaint was technically deficient, as is required by 11 CFR 111.5. The court also stated that, "If . the allegations were not within its prosecutorial jurisdiction, the FEC should have referred the matter to the Department of Justice or the appropriate agency."

The court also dismissed the FEC's argument that a huge backlog of cases at the agency requires it to dismiss administrative complaints such as the one filed by Judicial Watch without investigating them because of a lack of financial and human resources. The court said the FEC should have raised this issue in the administrative proceedings.

Appeals court decision

The appeals court found that Judicial Watch lacked standing to challenge the FEC's decision to dismiss an administrative complaint it filed with the agency.

In its memorandum opinion, the appellate court concluded that Judicial Watch failed to show that it suffered an injury stemming from the FEC's dismissal of its administrative complaint. The court said it was too late for Judicial Watch now to argue that its complaint should be read to allege reporting violations, and that the FEC's dismissal deprived the group and its members of information to which they are entitled. In Common Cause v. FEC, the appeals court had found that, if an organization has simply been "deprived of the knowledge as to whether a violation of the law has occurred," then its injury is no more than a general "interest in enforcement of the law" and not sufficient for standing.[1]

The court noted that Judicial Watch failed to make even a nominal allegation of reporting violations in its complaint. If, however, Judicial Watch has a viable claim of reporting violations, the court stated that it should file a new complaint with the FEC asserting those violations.

The appellate court also agreed with the FEC that the district court erred in granting summary judgment for Judicial Watch on the merits before the FEC had answered the complaint.


[1] Common Cause v. FEC, 108 F.3d 413 (D.C. Cir. 1997)

Source:   FEC Record July 1999; September 1998; and April 1998. Judicial Watch, Inc. v. FEC, 10 F. Supp.2d 39 (D.D.C. July 6, 1998).