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MARTIN TRACTOR CO. v. FEC

November 8, 1978

MARTIN TRACTOR COMPANY et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: OBERDORFER

MEMORANDUM

I.

 Three corporations, their political action committees, executives of two of them and a non-salaried employee of one of them here sue the Federal Election Commission and its members for a declaratory judgment that one section of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as amended in 1976, 2 U.S.C. § 431 Et seq., (the Act) violates rights guaranteed to them by the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution. The alleged violations result from a threat, apparent on the face of § 441b of the Act, that if corporate and executive plaintiffs sought voluntary contributions to a political fund from hourly employees orally and in writing, on or off the corporation's premises, more than twice a year, they could be punished by fine and imprisonment. This threat has allegedly caused these plaintiffs to limit their exercise of their constitutional right to seek such voluntary contributions by communicating with hourly employees and concurrently impinged upon the right of the hourly employee plaintiff to receive such communication. Plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief to prevent enforcement of § 441b and the regulations pursuant thereto.

 Defendants have moved to dismiss this complaint for lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter or for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Recognizing that the spirit of the Act requires prompt Court attention to constitutional questions raised about it, *fn1" and also recognizing the possible need of the parties for prompt action by this Court in order to expedite appeal from whatever decision it might make, the defendants' motion to dismiss was granted on October 18, 1978, with an indication that an explanatory memorandum would be forthcoming promptly.

 In general the statute contemplates that defendants should investigate any complaint about violation of the Act in confidence and allow any person there charged a reasonable opportunity to respond; 2 U.S.C. § 437g. The Court accepts as binding upon the FEC its statement that a party may raise any defenses or arguments during such proceedings, including constitutional ones; Brief at 8. If the defendants later determine that there is reasonable cause to believe that a violation either has occurred or is threatened, they must attempt informal resolution of that alleged or threatened violation for at least thirty days. If the informal resolution fails, defendants may file a civil enforcement action in a federal district court; if they find that a knowing and willful violation has occurred, the defendants may refer the matter to the Attorney General who may or may not initiate criminal prosecution.

 II.

 Plaintiffs claim that they are entitled to invoke the Court's jurisdiction under a unique provision of the Act which authorizes particular persons to sue "for declaratory judgment, as may be appropriate to construe the constitutionality of any provision of this Act." 2 U.S.C. § 437h(a). Section 437h(a) had the purpose and effect of expediting judicial review of questions raised in Congress about the constitutionality of particular provisions of the Act so that these questions could be authoritatively resolved before the Presidential Election of 1976. See Remarks of Senator James Buckley, 119 Cong.Rec. S5707 (daily ed. April 10, 1974); Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 11-12, 96 S. Ct. 612, 46 L. Ed. 2d 659 (1976). Plaintiffs do not suggest that § 441b here at issue was among the provisions whose constitutionality was questioned in Congress. In any event, and crucial here, access to court pursuant to § 437h(a) was by its terms limited to "the Commission, the national committee of any political party, or any individual eligible to vote in any election for the office of President of the United States."

 Neither the corporate plaintiffs nor the political action committees are in the category of entities or individuals entitled to invoke the Court's jurisdiction under § 437h(a). The decision to dismiss their complaint seems therefore to be A fortiori.

 A closer question is raised with respect to the executive plaintiffs and the hourly employee plaintiff. The complaint alleges that they are eligible voters; the complaint puts at issue, however, not their rights as voters, but rather the constitutionality of the Act's provisions relating to communications between a corporation and its employees about voluntary contributions. Thus, as defendants persuasively contend, the individual plaintiffs do not sue in their individual capacities to protect their individual rights to vote or even to make contributions. They sue to vindicate a claimed right of their corporate employer to influence its employees (including one of the plaintiffs) to make voluntary political contributions. While the question is not free from doubt, the Court has concluded that this kind of derivative right was not the constitutional right of "an individual eligible to vote" which Congress considered "appropriate" for vindication in a special declaratory judgment action under § 437h, particularly where, under the statutory scheme there is an alternative process for resolution of the substantive issue in the context of a particular transaction, Infra.

 III.

 The result would be no different if the Court assumed, contrary to the foregoing conclusion, that plaintiffs could qualify under § 437h. That section, while it may confer standing on certain classes, cannot by itself create a justiciable controversy. All actions brought under the statutory provisions for judicial review are subject to the requirements of "case and controversy" and "ripeness." See United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 67 S. Ct. 556, 91 L. Ed. 754 (1947); Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, 31 S. Ct. 250, 55 L. Ed. 246 (1911). Whether required by Article III of the Constitution or in part an expression of the discretion inherent in equity and declaratory judgment jurisdiction, these restrictions upon the jurisdiction of the federal courts are well established. Under the facts of this case, the Court concludes that there is at present no case or controversy sufficiently ripe for declaratory action. Plaintiffs merely allege that they communicated more freely with employees about contributions before the Act became law and desire to resume the practice and would do so but for the Act. They have not, however, advised defendants of their desire to communicate with their employees differently from the times and manner prescribed by law, nor sought any ruling by defendants to accommodate that desire. Neither have defendants taken any steps to invoke the statutory enforcement procedures. Where then is the case or controversy?

 Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136, 87 S. Ct. 1507, 18 L. Ed. 2d 681 (1967) establishes a test for determining whether action taken by an agency has created a sufficiently "ripe" controversy to permit granting of declaratory or injunctive relief. The challenge there was to a final action of the Federal Trade Commission in approving regulations which required drug manufacturers to print the "established name" of a drug in a specified typeface on any label or printed material, whenever it printed the "proprietary name" of that drug.

 Noting that the rationale of the ripeness doctrine is "to prevent the courts, through avoidance of premature adjudication, from entangling themselves in abstract disagreements over administrative policies, and also to protect the agencies from judicial interference until an administrative decision has been formalized and its effects felt in a concrete way by the challenging parties," the Court set forth a twofold test involving the balancing of "the fitness of the issues for ...


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