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Rove v. Thornburgh


On November 30, 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) does not immunize a federal candidate, under state law, from personal liability for the debts of his unincorporated campaign committee. Karl Rove & Company may, under the laws of Pennsylvania and Texas, pursue monetary redress for unpaid campaign debts from Richard Thornburgh, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in a 1991 special election.


In the course of his 1991 campaign, Mr. Thornburgh's unincorporated committee contracted with Rove & Company for mail solicitation services. A balance of $169,732 for these services remained outstanding after the election. Rove & Company brought suit against Mr. Thornburgh, his committee and the committee's treasurer. The district court found Mr. Thornburgh and his committee jointly and severally liable for breach of contract under the laws of Pennsylvania and Texas, but dismissed the claim against the committee treasurer for lack of personal jurisdiction.

Court of appeals decision

Mr. Thornburgh brought this appeal, arguing that the Act preempts state law and immunizes federal candidates from personal liability. He cited 2 U.S.C. §453 in support of this motion:

"The provisions of this Act, and the rules prescribed under this Act, supersede and preempt any provision of State law with respect to election to Federal office."

In rejecting this argument, the court noted that: §453 has had a historically narrow reading; that the FEC, in Advisory Opinion 1989-2, has deferred to state law in matters concerning liability for campaign debts; and that the Act does not address the issue of candidate liability for campaign debts anywhere in its provisions.

The court stated, "Although we recognize that Congress has constructed a somewhat analogous-and anomalous-legal regime to shield candidates from liability for violations of [the Act], absent express direction from that branch, we decline to extend further such an apparently inequitable rule."

The court noted that federal candidates can protect themselves from personal liability in most states by incorporating their principal campaign committees, by stipulating in contracts that the candidate is not personally liable or by taking both steps.

Source:   FEC RecordApril 1995. Rove v. Thornburgh, No. 93-8451 (5th Cir. Nov. 30, 1994).


Appeals Court (5th Circuit)

Court decisions:

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