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  • FEC Record: Litigation

Shays v. FEC (III)

July 1, 2008

On June 13, 2008, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's judgment in the Shays III case. Specifically, the appeals court agreed with the district court in finding deficient regulations regarding the content standard for coordination, the 120-day coordination window for common vendors and former campaign employees and the definitions of "GOTV activity" and "voter registration activity." The appeals court reversed the district court's decision to uphold the provision allowing federal candidates to solicit funds without restriction at state and local party events. These regulations were remanded to the FEC to issue "regulations consistent with the Act's text and purpose." The court did not vacate the regulations, so they remain in effect, pending further action. The appeals court upheld the FEC's regulations regarding the firewall safe harbor for coordination by former employees and vendors, which the district court had found deficient.


In response to the court decisions and judgment in Shays I, the FEC held rulemaking proceedings during 2005 and 2006 to revise a number of its Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) regulations. On July 11, 2006, U.S. Representative Christopher Shays and then-Representative Martin Meehan (the plaintiffs) filed another complaint in district court. The complaint challenged the FEC's recent revisions to, or expanded explanations for, regulations governing coordinated communications, federal election activity (FEA) and solicitations by federal candidates and officeholders at state party fundraising events. The plaintiffs claimed that the rules did not comply with the court's judgment in Shays I or with the BCRA. The complaint also alleged the FEC did not adequately explain and justify its actions.

On September 12, 2007, the district court granted in part and denied in part the parties' motions for summary judgment in this case. The court remanded to the FEC a number of regulations implementing the BCRA, including:

  • The revised coordinated communications content standard at 11 CFR 109.21(c)(4);
  • The 120-day window for coordination through common vendors and former employees under the conduct standard at 11 CFR 109.21(d)(4) and (d)(5);
  • The safe harbor from the definition of "coordinated communication" for a common vendor, former employee, or political committee that establishes a "firewall" (11 CFR 109.21(h)(1) and (h)(2)); and
  • The definitions of "voter registration activity" and "get-out-the-vote activity" (GOTV) at 11 CFR 100.24(a)(2)-(a)(3).

On October 16, 2007, the Commission filed a Notice of Appeal seeking appellate review of all of the adverse rulings issued by the district court. On October 23, 2007, Representative Shays cross-appealed the district court's judgment insofar as it denied the plaintiff's "claims or requested relief."

Appeals Court Decision

The appellate court upheld the majority of the district court's decision, including the remand of the content standard for coordination, the 120-day common vendor coordination time period and the definitions of GOTV activity and voter registration activity. While the district court had held the firewall safe harbor for coordination by former employees and vendors invalid, the court of appeals reversed the district court and upheld the safe harbor provision. The court of appeals reversed the district court's decision to uphold the provision permitting federal candidates to solicit funds without restriction at state or local party events.

Coordination Content Standard. The court of appeals held that, while the Commission's decision to regulate ads more strictly within the 90- and 120-day periods was "perfectly reasonable," the decision to regulate ads outside of the time period only if they republish campaign material or contain express advocacy was unacceptable. Although the vast majority of communications are run within the time periods and are thus subject to regulation as coordinated communications, the court held that the current regulation allows "soft money" to be used to make election-influencing communications outside of the time periods, thus frustrating the purpose of the BCRA. The appellate court remanded the regulations to the Commission to draft new regulations concerning the content standard.

Coordination by Common Vendors and Former Employees. The appellate court affirmed the district court's decision concerning the 120-day prohibition on the use of material information about "campaign plans, projects, activities and needs" by vendors or former employees of a campaign. The court held that some material could retain its usefulness for more than 120 days and also that the Commission did not sufficiently support its decision to use 120 days as the acceptable time period after which coordination would not occur.

Firewall Safe Harbor. Contrary to the decision of the district court, the court of appeals approved the firewall safe harbor regulation to stand as written. The safe harbor is designed to protect vendors and organizations in which some employees are working on a candidate's campaign and others are working for outside organizations making independent expenditures. The appellate court held that, although the firewall provision states generally as to what the firewall should actually look like, the court deferred to the Commission's decision to allow organizations to create functional firewalls that are best adapted to the particular organizations' unique structures.

Definitions of GOTV and Voter Registration Activity. The court of appeals upheld the district court's decision to remand the definitions of "GOTV" and "voter registration activity." The court held that the definitions impermissibly required "individualized" assistance directed towards voters and thus continued to allow the use of soft money to influence federal elections, contrary to Congress' intent.

Solicitations by federal candidates at state party fundraisers. While the district court had upheld the regulation permitting federal candidates and officeholders to speak without restriction at state party fundraisers, the court of appeals disagreed. The court stated that Congress did not explicitly state that federal candidates could raise soft money at state party fundraisers; rather, Congress permitted the federal candidates to "appear, speak, or be a featured guest." Congress set forth several exceptions to the ban on federal candidates raising soft money, and state party events were not included in the exceptions. Thus, the court found the regulation impermissible.

U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 07-5360.

  • Author 
    • Meredith Metzler