National Committee of the Reform Party v. FEC
On February 27, 1998, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed this case after agreeing with the FEC that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
On February 9, 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The district court had declined to certify claims brought by the National Committee of the Reform Party (the Committee) to an en banc panel of the appeals court. The district court had determined that the Committee lacked standing in regard to some of its claims and failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted with respect to its remaining claims.
In this case, the Committee, the Reform Party of California, campaign committees of former Reform Party Presidential candidate Ross Perot and an individual voter who supported Mr. Perot in the 1996 Presidential election alleged that:
- The issue ads paid for by the 1996 Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns caused the Reform Party monetary damages by reducing the number of votes its Presidential candidate received and thereby reducing the amount of federal funding the party nominee would be entitled to in the 2000 election.
- The statutory composition of the FEC at 2 U.S.C. §437c(a)(1), which states that no more than three members of the six-member Commission may be affiliated with the same political party, is unconstitutional.
- The Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act (Fund Act) is unconstitutional because it denies equal protection by providing greater funding to major party candidates than it does to minor party candidates.
In addition to these claims, the Committee contended the Republican and Democratic defendants owed it damages under California and federal laws.
Appeals court decision
The appellate court found that neither California nor federal law authorized the Committee's suit for damages related to issue advertisements produced by the Republican and Democratic committees. The FEC's power to sue alleged violators of the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) is the "exclusive civil remedy" for enforcement of the Act. 2 U.S.C. §437d(e). (Entities may, however, seek judicial review of the agency's dismissal of an administrative complaint alleging violations of the Act.) The Committee argued unsuccessfully that the FEC's "exclusive civil remedy" did not preclude the Reform Party Committee from acting as a private party and suing for damages.
Legislative history is instructive here, the court found. Before the 1976 amendments to the Act, there was confusion over just which agency should enforce the statute. In those amendments, Congress added the word "exclusive" to prohibit enforcement suits by other agencies. There is no indication that Congress was, at the same time, approving private suits. The U.S. Supreme Court has also noted that there is no authority supporting the contention that Congress intended to have anyone other than the government enforce the Act (FEC v. National Conservative Political Action Committee, 470 U.S. 480 (1985)).
In addition, the Commission has a process in place by which entities can pursue their charges that the Act or FEC regulations have been violated.
The Act states that no more than three members of the Commission may be affiliated with the same political party. 2 U.S.C. §437c(a)(1). Commission seats historically have been equally divided between Democrats and Republicans only. Appellants claimed that this provision violates the Appointments Clause and their rights to free speech and equal protection. The court said that they lacked standing to raise this claim because they did not explain how the relief they requested-the invalidation of the party affiliation provision-would make minority party representation on the Commission more likely.
The Committee's facial challenge to the Fund Act, based on First Amendment and equal protection arguments, is foreclosed by Buckley v. Valeo, the court found. The Supreme Court held that the Fund Act "is a congressional effort, not to abridge, restrict, or censor speech, but rather to use public money to facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process." Buckley went on to say that the public funding system does not discriminate against minor parties. "[T]he inability, if any, of minor-party candidates to wage effective campaigns will derive not from lack of public funding but from their inability to raise private contributions."
The Committee also argued that, as applied, the Fund Act "invidiously" discriminates against the Reform Party. The appellate court rejected this claim, concluding that the types of complaints expressed by the Reform Party were understood and taken into account by the Supreme Court when it rejected the claims of invidious discrimination in Buckley.