Mott v. FEC
On June 30, 1980, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a suit in which Stewart R. Mott, Rhonda K. Stahlman and the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) had sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the FEC. In its motion to dismiss the suit (Mott v. FEC, Civil Action No. 79-3375), the FEC argued that some of the claims presented in the suit were not ripe for consideration by the court while others failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. In its role as amicus curiae, Common Cause had also filed a brief arguing dismissal of the suit.
District court ruling
Plaintiffs had challenged the constitutionality of provisions of the Act, FEC regulations, advisory opinions and other written interpretations which regulate independent political activity by prescribing limits on contributions from individuals, groups and political committees to other individuals, groups and political committees which make independent expenditures. Plaintiffs claimed that these provisions define the terms "contribution" and "expenditure" in overly broad and vague language.
Mr. Mott proposed that, together with other "like-minded individuals," he would purchase advertising space in The New York Times to express his views on political issues and expressly advocate the election or defeat of several clearly identified federal candidates. Specifically, he claimed that the First Amendment rights of those purchasing the ad would be restricted by provisions of the Act illegally requiring that:
- This group of individuals register with the FEC as a political committee when their expenditures for the advertising exceed $1,000; and
- The amount spent in the joint advertising purchase count against the limits imposed on individual contributions to political committees.
The district court determined that the constitutional issues raised by Mr. Mott were not ripe for judicial decision in the absence of a more fully developed factual record. The claim that Mr. Mott wished to "join with others" in purchasing the advertising was broad enough to encompass a single purchase of advertising space as well as a series of advertisements and solicitations by a full-fledged political committee. Further, the court noted that Mr. Mott should have requested an advisory opinion from the FEC on the application of the Act to this proposed activity before seeking a review by the court. Both NCPAC and Ms. Stahlman challenged the constitutionality of limits on contributions by individuals to political committees which make independent expenditures. Ms. Stahlman's and NCPAC's claims raised three constitutional issues:
- Whether the definition of "contribution" in 2 U.S.C. §431(8) abridges First Amendment rights since it limits contributions which individuals may make to political committees undertaking independent expenditures;
- Whether 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(3), which limits total contributions by an individual within any calendar year to $25,000, is unconstitutional under the First and Fifth Amendments; and
- Whether 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(1)(C), which limits contributions by a person to a political committee to $5,000 in any calendar year, is unconstitutional under the First and Fifth Amendments.
The district court pointed out that, in the Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the contribution limits. (Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 at 38 (1976).) The district court said that, although the Supreme Court had not specifically addressed the $5,000 limit on individual contributions to political committees, its "reasoning...clearly indicated that the restriction is constitutional." The Supreme Court had reasoned that a limit on contributions infringed far less on First Amendment rights than did a limit on expenditures, because the contribution limits involved restrictions on indirect, rather than direct, political expression. Further, whatever infringement did occur was justified by the need to curb the "actuality and appearance of corruption" flowing from large individual contributions. (Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 at 26 (1976).)
In appealing the district court's decision, NCPAC and Ms. Stahlman reasserted their constitutional challenges. They also asked the appeals court to find "erroneous" the district court's refusal to certify their challenges to the appeals court.
Appeals court ruling
On December 8, 1981, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a memorandum decision in National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) and Rhonda K. Stahlman v. FEC (Civil Action No. 80-1949). Citing as precedent the Supreme Court's June 1981 decision in California Medical Assoc. (CMA) v. FEC, the appeals court rejected plaintiffs' constitutional challenges and affirmed the district court's disposition of the case.
The appeals court rejected plaintiffs' assertion that NCPAC was not subject to the CMA decision because it not only made contributions but made independent expenditures as well. The court said the CMA decision did apply because NCPAC's activity was not limited to independent expenditures. Moreover, the court held that limits on NCPAC contributors did not impermissibly infringe on their free speech rights because the contributions constituted "speech by proxy" since contributors had no voice in NCPAC's decisions concerning independent expenditures. 101 S.Ct. at 2721-22.
The appeals court also followed precedent set by the CMA decision in rejecting plaintiffs' assertion that unlimited contributions earmarked for NCPAC's independent expenditures would not "risk corrupting or appearing to corrupt the political process in the manner Congress sought to prohibit." 101 S.Ct. at 2723 n. 19; 494 F. Supp. at 137.