On November 7, 2016, a three-judge court of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment to the Commission in a lawsuit brought by the Republican Party of Louisiana and several local Republican party committees in Louisiana (collectively, plaintiffs). The plaintiffs challenged federal campaign finance provisions requiring state and local political parties to use certain types of funds to finance activities in connection with federal elections, including get-out-the-vote, voter registration drives and other communications and activities.
The court denied the Commission’s motion to dissolve the three-judge court or dismiss the case, denied the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and ruled in favor of the Commission on the merits.
Background and challenge
Under the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act), state and local political parties generally must pay for "federal election activity" (FEA) with funds raised subject to the limitations and prohibitions of the Act. 52 U.S.C. § 30125(b)(1). This type of money — subject to the Act’s source and amount restrictions — is known as "hard money." "Soft money" refers to funds that are raised outside of those limitations. FEA includes activities such as get-out-the-vote activity, voter identification, generic campaign activity, and voter registration activity conducted within a specific time period prior to a federal election. 52 U.S.C. § 30101(20). It also includes public communications that promote, attack, support, or oppose (PASO) any clearly identified federal candidate when made at any time, and the salaries and wages of state and local party employees who spend more than 25 percent of their compensated time on activities in connection with a federal election during any given month. See 52 U.S.C. § 30101(20). 52 U.S.C. § 30101(20). The Act further prohibits the use of soft money to raise money for FEA. 52 U.S.C. § 30125(c). It also requires state, district and local party committees to disclose their FEA above a certain threshold in reports filed with the Commission. 52 U.S.C. § 30104(e)(2).
The plaintiffs challenged sections 30125(b)(1), 30125(c) and 30104(e)(2). They argued that the three provisions unconstitutionally burden their First Amendment rights by restricting their ability to use soft money — or nonfederal funds — to finance FEA that they alleged they wanted to do, including certain FEA that they planned to do independently.
District court decision
Standing. The district court first determined that the plaintiffs have standing before the three-judge court. It wrote that the invalidation of section 30104(e)(2) would alleviate the Republican Party of Louisiana's need to submit monthly reports to the Commission and that invalidation of section 30125(b)(1) would permit the Republican Party of Louisiana to use corporate funds on at least some kinds of FEA.
Facial Challenge. The plaintiffs challenged section 30125(b)(1) on the basis that the provision deprives them of their First Amendment rights. Although the Supreme Court in McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003) had already rejected a facial challenge to that provision, the plaintiffs argued that the Supreme Court had superseded its earlier opinion in McConnell with the plurality’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, 134 S. Ct. 1434 (2014). The district court disagreed. It explained that "the approach of the McCutcheon plurality is consistent with McConnell’s treatment of [§ 30125(b)] as a contribution limit subject to less demanding scrutiny" and quoted the McCutcheon opinion’s "express" statement that McCutcheon’s "‘holding about the constitutionality of the aggregate limits clearly does not overrule McConnell’s holding about "soft money."’"
The district court also rejected the plaintiffs' facial challenge to the reporting requirements, citing the holdings of earlier Supreme Court decisions finding that disclosure obligations, unlike contribution and expenditure limitations, are additionally justified by governmental interests in providing information to the electorate about the sources of election-related spending. See Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
As-Applied Challenge. The plaintiffs also mounted an as-applied challenge to the Act's provisions specifying the types of funds state and local parties may use for FEA. The plaintiffs contended that the Act's restrictions on using soft money for FEA conducted independently of a federal candidate or campaign are invalid because such FEA poses an insufficient risk of actual or apparent corruption. The district court again disagreed. It found the plaintiffs' argument incompatible with the Supreme Court's holding in McConnell, which stated that because the categories of FEA confer substantial benefits on federal candidates, the funding of such activities creates a significant risk of actual and apparent corruption. The district court also relied on RNC v. FEC in which another three-judge court in the same district rejected "comparable" claims and was summarily affirmed by the Supreme Court. Based on those decisions, the district court explained that the plaintiffs could not deny that the activities would provide a direct benefit to such federal candidates, even if they were to be conducted independently of them.
The district court found that the plaintiffs’ reliance on the Supreme Court''s reasoning in Citizens United, which invalidated a ban on independent expenditures by corporations and labor unions to support federal candidates, was "misperceive[d]." The district court distinguished independent expenditures by corporations and labor unions, and contributions to independent-expenditure nonprofit organizations, which courts previously had concluded do not give rise to the appearance or reality of corruption. The district court also noted that the close connection and alignment of interests between political parties and federal officeholders means that large contributions raise a danger of actual and apparent corruption regardless of how a political party committee ultimately spends funds it raises. The court explained that "[t]he potential for quid pro quo corruption stemming from soft-money contributions to political parties not only distinguishes them from spending by independent-expenditure organizations, but it also distinguishes them from contributions to independent-expenditure organizations."
The district court thus found the plaintiffs' as-applied challenge to section 30125(b)(1) to be incompatible with the Supreme Court's decision to uphold that provision in McConnell, as well as the subsequent decision in RNC. Finally, the court also rejected the plaintiffs' as applied challenges to sections 30125(c) and 30104(e)(2).
On November 11, 2016, plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, as authorized by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. See Note, 52 U.S.C. § 30110.
- Republican Party of Louisiana, et al. v. FEC litigation page